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Why we need ‘new species of varsities’

By - | Published Wed, July 25th 2012 at 00:00, Updated July 24th 2012 at 21:23 GMT +3

By Ally Jamah

Picture this: instead of university students writing the usual theses or research projects before they can graduate, they draw up business plans!

In the plan, they are required to carefully outline how they will execute business ideas to produce goods and services and show their track record in managing successful businesses.

Sounds impossible in Kenya? Well, this is exactly what a Kenyan international scholar wants to see in our universities in his drive to transform them to becoming “entrepreneurship universities”.

Prof Calestous Juma, a distinguished Kenyan scholar who teaches at the Harvard’s Kennedy School, shares his conviction that our universities need to nurture entrepreneurs in practical terms rather than just in theory.

Since 2002 he has held the position of Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School of Harvard University.

In 2012, he was appointed Faculty Associate of Harvard’s Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs.

Speaking to Education during his recent visit to Kenya to receive an award from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology, Prof Juma said Kenyan universities should do a better job of building people who can create wealth for themselves through new business ventures.

False promise?

“It is not uncommon to see our institutions say in their mission statements that they are developing job creators and not job seekers, but if you look at how the curriculum is structured, you realise they won’t actually deliver on that,” he says.

Juma argues it may be necessary to create new “species of universities in Kenya with an entrepreneurial DNA” to achieve that goal, saying transforming the current institutions may not be easy.

“Most of our universities are still focused on training workers for the civil service or as private sector employees. They have done a good job on that, but changing their DNA to perform new roles will take a long time,” he tells Education.

He explains that entrepreneurial universities can help students create their own businesses while still in campus and trained on how to develop and execute their business plans.

“So, instead of just graduating students, universities will also be graduating companies which can add value to the economy by producing goods and services for consumption locally or abroad,” he says.

“You don’t wait until students leave campus for them to start businesses, but the universities can put in place the structures to nurture business ideas into fruition for their students. When they graduate, the enterprise is actually ready.”

A recent research study revealed that 17 to 20 per cent of students from entrepreneurs’ universities create their own businesses within the first year of graduating, a figure described as a “very high rate of business creation” by Juma.

Business trainers

He suggests a model in which students access loans from the university or arranged with banks to establish their own businesses while they are still in campus.

They are mentored to successfully manage their firms by experienced business trainers. The university and the student or group of students may agree to share profits or losses.

“The Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil is using this model which is now being replicated in many other universities in the world. It is a bold model that put students as hands-on managers of businesses,” he says.

The university mentors the student right from the beginning of formulating business plans to management of actual businesses.

“When they are working on the feasibility study for the business, they take courses in business planning. When they start producing goods and services, they take courses related to that. Later they learn how to wind up the company and sell the assets,” he adds.