The Role of Higher Education in Innovation and Entrepreneurship Ecosystems

The Role of Higher Education in Innovation and Entrepreneurship Ecosystems

In a rapidly changing, uncertain and complex world, the roles that universities are playing as the engines of social mobility, as drivers of the economy and as generators of new ideas are now more critical than ever. Due to the universal nature of knowledge, universities are global in their scope – a space that encourages new ideas, controversy, inquiry and argument, and challenges orthodox views; but they are also deeply entrenched in their local environment, influenced by socio-economic and political dynamics. There is an expectation that universities should exhibit great levels of responsiveness and must play a critical role in the betterment of society, both socially and economically. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown deep fault-lines in our society – stark poverty and inequality – universities should actively engage with these challenges, and although they cannot eliminate them on their own, they can and should be part of the solution.

The achievement of an innovative, entrepreneurial and technology-rich economy and society depends on the depth, width and overall quality of human capital, informed by knowledge and the experience of research – a key role for universities. With an increase in youth unemployment, and a rising number of young people entering the higher education system, universities should redefine their traditional narrative, which is starting to loose validity – that having a degree means that you are guaranteed employment or even worse, that you are instantly employable. Whereas education is seen as an important component in stimulating entrepreneurial activity, entrepreneurship is seen as a source of employment through the promotion of business formation. Hence, universities should strive towards more inclusive and flexible curricula that reflect the realities of private sector, industry, commerce and the future world of work. A student entrepreneurial value chain approach, focusing on sensitisation, graduate attributes, exposure to entrepreneurs, incubation, introduction to proper networks and business development, could be a deliberate institutional design so as to maximise an entrepreneurial culture amongst graduates. All of this will need to embrace digital content with a mixture of remote and on-site teaching and experiential methodologies.


“The future world of work, and perhaps graduate employability, are not only driven by the digital economy, but also by business and private sectors re-thinking their own business models post COVID-19.”


A vibrant relationship between universities and these sectors is not a ‘nice-to-have’, it is essential. Hence, advisory boards for academic departments at universities, composed of representatives from these sectors, coupled with traditional research engagements and the offering of short learning programmes (skilling & re-skilling) with these sectors is the type of ecosystem that will promote innovation and entrepreneurship. However, these relationships, whether renewed or initiated for the first time, must be co-created: Building a strong society and economy is a collective responsibility. As COVID-19 has stressed the notion of social solidarity, emphasing a common purpose, an innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem must embed integrated linkages with business, public sector, civil society and government.

Although innovation is the capacity to generate, acquire and apply knowledge for the advancement of economic and social purposes, it is also about improving current practices and performing new things in new and different ways – more collaborative, and more multi-disciplinary. As the business sector will reflect and redesign their operational models post COVID-19, the university innovation ecosystem should and must be able to contribute to internal business and process renewal. Universities must interrogate flexible human resource models such as staff who can work remotely, and possible joint-appointments and secondments across the different sectors of the economy. In order to deliver effective teaching and learning, universities will have to develop a continuum from face-to-face to online methodologies. Although globalisation will remain a focus, an urgent need to promote localisation is critical, and with a possible downturn in international travel, universities must re-imagine the realization of their internationalisation strategies.



Francis Petersen is the Rector & Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State in South Africa. He has formerly been Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Dean: Engineering & the Built Environment at the University of Cape Town, the Executive Head: Strategy at Anglo American Platinum and Executive Vice-President: Research and Development at Mintek. He has extensive experience of management at various levels within the university and indus-try sectors, and has been actively involved in strategic planning and systems thinking with regard to R&D in the Science & Technology Sectors.

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