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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Needed: An entrepreneurial dimension to universities

The Island: 14/03/2006" by Prof. Ranjith Senaratne Vice Chancellor University of Ruhuna

Traditionally, teaching and research have been the main missions of a university. This has gradually changed with the emergence of disciplines such as biotechnology, increased globalization, reduced basic funding and the new perspectives on the role of university ‘in the system of knowledge production. As knowledge becomes an increasingly important part of innovation, the university as a knowledge-producing and disseminating institution plays a larger role in industrial innovation. Thus, in a knowledge- based economy, the university becomes a key element of the innovation system both as human capital and seed-bed of new firms. In today’s global landscape of relentless change and innovation, the mission of universities has thus become multi-faceted and they must see themselves as part of the larger global enterprise of creating, imparting, applying and commercializing knowledge. Research universities around the world are increasingly embracing an entrepreneurial dimension. They leverage on the natural complimentarity between creating, imparting, and applying knowledge and create spin-off companies and produce licenses and patents. Therefore to stay relevant and prosper, universities in the 21st century should play three roles, deliver quality undergraduate and post graduate’ education, conduct high impact research and foster entrepreneurship and industry involvement.

As scientific knowledge and commercialization of research results ("entrepreneurial science’) are becoming increasingly important for innovation and new business development, universities can play an enhanced role in innovation. Hence, universities in the world that were policy makers earlier are now, playing a direct role as actors in regional and national development. For instance, Oulu University in Finland through its entrepreneurial activities brought about considerable industrial growth and economic development in the region, which is now globally known as "Oulu Phenomenon".

Why an entrepreneurial dimension?

Today we are living in a fiercely competitive knowledge-based globalized environment where economic growth is no longer efficiency-driven, but innovation-driven, and innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs have become the critical human resources of economic development. If you look at most successful countries, they have built and sustained vibrant innovation systems.

A society with high levels of knowledge and management skills will not produce breakthroughs in products or processes needed for economic advance without a strong base of entrepreneurs and spirit of entrepreneurship that extends across society. Hence, we need to produce graduates who can transform new ideas, thoughts and knowledge into innovative products and services and who can contribute towards improving the existing products and services. We want our present day graduates not to wait until opportunities come to them. No deer will jump into the mouth of a sleeping lion! We need them to chase after opportunities, capture them and create new enterprises. If no opportunities exist, they should be able to create new opportunities.

In the old economy, the system of education was geared to producing graduates for a career of life, but is the present economy, -we need to produce graduates for a life of careers. That means we got to equip our students with multiple skills and competencies so that they could fit into a wider range of employment opportunities. We would like our graduates to, be bold and adventurous and take calculated risk while being rooted in the reality and embark upon innovative, challenging and novel enterprises rather than seeking "unexciting, non-challenging and traditional pen-pushing positions. In other words, we would like them to charter new courses and get onto untrodden paths rather than treading along the beaten track.

What Munidasa Cumarathunga said several decades ago, "Aluth aluth da nothanna jathiya Iowa nonagi" - A nation that is not innovative will never prosper in the world - is more relevant today than ever before. As Charles Darwin said " It is not the strongest species that would survive nor the most intelligent, but the species most responsive to change". This applies equally to any country, nation and institution. Therefore the universities need to appropriately and swiftly respond to change if they are to survive in the fiercely competitive and rapidly growing global landscape of higher education.

In this connection, as coined by Prof. Shih Choon Fong, the President of the National University of Singapore," innovative intelligence" - the ability to translate ideas and knowledge to improve products and services, as well as create new ones - and "entrepreneurial intelligence" - capacity to create new enterprise from opportunities - assume paramount importance. As S. R. Nathan, President of Singapore once said " By supporting entrepreneurship and fostering innovation, we will encourage more people to dream of new ideas, pursue them with passion and open up new opportunities for economy"

Several decades ago, MIT saw the values of a science and technology-led university education with an enterprise dimension. A study conducted in 1997 revealed that if the companies founded by MIT graduates and faculty formed an independent nation, their revenues would make them the 24 the largest economy in the world with annual sales of US$ 232 billion, which is more than double the GDP of Singapore.

Similarly National University of Singapore (NUS) has taken steps to nurture an entrepreneurial culture by establishing NUS enterprises in Silicon Valley in partnership with Stanford and in Bio Valley with the University of Pennsylvania. In these entrepreneurial hubs, students are immersed in an entrepreneurial environment and imbibe entrepreneurial spirit and work with peers and entrepreneurs. Here they do internships with technology based start-ups for one year while attending entrepreneurship and discipline-based courses at partner universities. As NUS President says, "we have no choice, but to think "global", breathe "global" and be "global". We are globally oriented because there is neither retreat nor hinterland".

Premier entrepreneurial universities in the world such as Stanford, Berkley, Pennsylvania and MIT have learnt to balance their academic and entrepreneurial roles and harvest the benefits. Universities such as MIT and Stanford, which had been considered as anomalies within the US academic system in the past now have become the models for other universities to emulate. We can learn a great deal from the above success stories. However, it should be emphasized that high quality, cutting edge research is required to create new knowledge and new industrial innovations of high value as mediocre or poor research will produce neither new knowledge nor industrial innovations.

Lessons from other universities

If we look at some highly prestigious as well as rapidly developing universities in the world, there are breaking away from traditions and bringing new perspectives and vision to universities by installing those with experience in industry and world of work as the Vice-Chancellors. For instance, Harvard University of USA, one of the most prestigious universities in the world, appointed Larry Summers, former US Secretary of the Treasury as the President. Some years ago, Cambridge university recruited Alec Broers, an Australian research engineer from IBM New York, its first Vice-Chancellor from outside Britain while the Oxford university appointed John Hood, a consulting Engineer and former Vice-Chancellor of Auckland University from New Zealand as the Vice-chancellor of Oxford in 2004. Such a decision was simply unthinkable in the past in the two most prestigious universities in Britain with strong traditions and values peculiar to them. Thus Oxford and Cambridge are fishing and competing in the global market place for talents and ideas. They have made the watershed decision to search globally for their academic leaders.

Prof. Shih Choon Fong, the President of the NUS has worked at General Electrical Company in USA for seven years before joining it. He has now made the NUS a topnotch university, coming within the top 5 in Asia and Australia. In Japan increasing number of universities now have high level administrators who have been recruited from industrial research positions. There are many such examples in the higher education landscape of the world, which show how they have responded to change and the importance of having a leader with an entrepreneurial drive and experience so as to create an entrepreneurial university. In Brazil, in the state of Rio de Janiero, government offered incentives for companies, and universities to collaborate in revising rigid academic structures in order to make undergraduate education both more interdisciplinary and more responsive to the needs of the employers.

If we look at some entrepreneurial universities in Europe, we can learn many lessons and get new ideas. For instance, Chalmers University of Technology (CUT) in Sweden, one of the 10 best technical universities in Europe, has a Vice-Rector for external activities/University-Industry-Government cooperation.

It has a Department of Innovation Engineering and Management. Between 1978 and 1998, it has produced 225 spin-offs. The Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship (CSE) at CUT recruits students from Engineering, Business and Design school. Thus it is not confined only to Management students as in our country. Every year 20-25 students are selected on the basis of comprehensive applications and interviews by the staff of CSE and psychologists.

The aim of the selection process is to identify students who are motivated and capable of becoming entrepreneurs. Here studies are built around a real innovation project where groups of three students are establishing a new venture on the basis of a research-based idea. Thus the students are fully involved as entrepreneurs in the start- up process, from high potential idea selection, team composition, to venture formation and the process of attracting investors.

At Jonkoping International Business School (JIBS) in Sweden, all students in entrepreneurship will have access to an experienced mentor from a company in the region and are provided with incubator facilities. In Malardalen university of Sweden has an idea-lab with creative rooms to stimulate idea generation, idea development and new business formation among students. Idea lab has experienced staff and an extensive network of mentors. In this lab, person with an idea can work a few months to verify if the idea is feasible to start a business or not. Idea lab arranges courses, lectures, meeting points and has a high profile at the university. External entrepreneurs, who constitute role-models contribute to move the project forward. Oulu university in Finland through the spin-off, patents and licenses has greatly contributed to industrial development in that region, which is now globally known as "Oulu phenomenon".

However, some view the entrepreneurial paradigm as a threat to traditional integrity of the university and fear that an intensive pecuniary interest will cause the university to lose its role as independent critic of society. More over some companies concerned about new firms emerging from academic as potential competitor, take a similar position, arguing that universities should confine themselves to traditional academic industrial relationships such as consultation.

How to make an entrepreneurial university?

In our universities, entrepreneurship is still a subject only, for undergraduates reading for degrees in Management and Business Administration,, Science-based faculties such as engineering, medicine, science, fisheries, agriculture etc. generate considerable amount of new knowledge through research that is of great industrial potential and commercial value. However, they are only published in research journals and the findings are hardly commercialized and it is often the foreign countries that benefit from such valuable findings. For instance, I was recently chairing an interview board to promote a Senior Lecturer in Chemistry who has clearly established the strong cobra-repellent properties of a plant called "Andu" (Eryngtum foetidum). The results have been published in a reputed journal, but no attempt has been made to commercialize the finding. This could potentially be developed into a big international industry, but for lack of entrepreneurial skills and drive thousands of such valuable findings in many disciplines that could have given birth to new enterprises promoting industrial growth and economic development in the country, are gathering dust on the shelves of libraries.

Entrepreneurship in my opinion is a cross-cutting discipline and should be taught as a subject in all degree programmes including Engineering, Agriculture, Fisheries, Science, IT etc. In our universities, Entrepreneurship is taught only to students following degree programmes in Management and Business Administration and there is no mix of students from different disciplines. As a result, they do not see the tremendous entrepreneurial opportunities that exist in various sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, IT, chemistry, industry etc. Multidisciplinarity will bring new and diverse perspectives and provides for cross-fertilization of ideas instead of inbreeding. Therefore many developed universities in the world promote the concept of borderless, multidisciplinary university, enabling free diffusion of ideas and confluence of talents across disciplinary boundaries. Hence, we need to properly identify students from different disciplines who have strong entrepreneurial passion and drive for courses on entrepreneurship and as done in some foreign universities, i.e. Bodo Business School in Norway, it should be made mandatory for each student in entrepreneurship to start an enterprise in the first year itself under the guidance of experienced entrepreneurs and mentors. Students in technologically biased fields could be offered courses on Technopreneurship. The staff of such courses should also have the ability and passion to unleash the creative energies of students and get them to think out-of-the box. It is also important to invite the movers and shakers of industry to develop and conduct courses, developing the entrepreneurial skills and igniting the entrepreneurial passion of students thereby helping them to blossom out as entrepreneurs.

Establishment of business incubators attached to universities are now very common in many foreign universities where students are immersed in an entrepreneurial environment which enable them to develop into enterprising, resourceful, independent self-starters and eventually blossom out as successful entrepreneurs. The University of Ruhuna recently established such incubators with the assistance from UNIDO to help the start-ups.

New knowledge and findings of industrial potential or commercial value that emanate from research conducted by the staff are often not commercialized and such a culture does not exist in the universities.. Therefore it will be useful to have an institutional mechanism or structure to provide necessary services to educate and advise the staff on how to commercialize research findings, innovation & inventions and new knowledge and assist transform new ideas and knowledge into innovative products and services. Moreover, courses on creativity, innovation, invention and such like, which will sharpen the faculties of analysis, foster imagination, inquiry, and creative & out-of-the box thinking and ignite the passion to innovate and create new, knowledge should be developed and offered.

In addition, the following measures will prove useful in affording an entrepreneurial dimension to and promoting an entrepreneurial culture in universities..

1. Establishment of partnership with industry and Chambers of Commerce.

2. Establishment of a Chair in Entrepreneurship enabling the universities to obtain services of suitable private sector personnel to conduct rele vant teaching and training programmes.

3. Providing internship to students with industry as part of the academic programme.

4. Establishment of partnership with leading entrepreneurial universities in the world.

5. Setting up of Entrepreneurs & Innovators Clubs.

6. Establishment of encouragement award schemes to honour and recognize the most outstanding student/staff innovator, inventor and entrepreneur in universities.

7. Engagement of students in entrepreneurial activities such as running guest houses, student canteens, bookshops, souvenir shops, day-care centres/early childhood development centres, cyber cafes including web designing, travel offices, tourist information centres with connected services in town as enterprises

Advantages of entrepreneurial universities

An entrepreneurial university will have several advantages over a traditional university. Reduced dependence on state- finds through income generated from licenses, patents, spin-off — companies etc, greater administrative and financial autonomy through generated income, production of more innovative and entrepreneurial graduates, improved employability of graduates and greater contribution to industrial growth, business development and regional development are some major advantages of an entrepreneurial university. If we look at the universities in the world, there are many universities that have become not only a true and effective partner, but also the driving force and engine of regional development. Stanford university of USA, Technology Universities in Aachen in Germany, University of Sheffield in UK, Oulu University in Finland, Chalmers University in Sweden, Punjab University in India are just bto name a few.

There are many youths in rural areas with innovative and entrepreneurial ideas and spirit, but there have no way of developing these ideas into novel products and services. Besides, many technically gifted people in rural areas running small cycle repair shops, garages and such like are just stagnating without blossoming out expressing their full potential. This is because institutions that can give a leg-up to such promising people do not reach out to them. According to the former Director of Innovation and Invention Commission, Dr. L. M. K. Tillekeratne, most of the innovation and inventions in Sri Lanka have come about from rural areas. Invention of the cashew shelling machine by a rural youth is a case in point.

The universities, through Innovators and Entrepreneurs clubs could reach out and unearth such "gems and jewels" and help them blossom out though appropriate interventions. The out-reach arm of the universities with the engagement of right students could do a greater deal in improving viability and growth of such micro and small enterprises and graduating them to medium enterprises. The University of Ruhuna is in the process of repositioning and re- creating itself with an entrepreneurial dimension. It looks forward to becoming a true and effective partner in facilitating, accelerating and directing enterprise development in the region with its strategic partnership with the Southern Development Authority, the Chambers of Commerce in Harnbantota and Matara and other relevant government and non-governmental organizations.

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