The complex relationship of universities with society has constantly to be worked at. These institutions are global in scope because of the nature of knowledge as an entity that spans borders and cultures, but they are also deeply rooted in the social, economic and political geographies in which they are located. They are simultaneously intensely local and intensely global,” says Prof Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa.
The University of Johannesburg visiting professor Prof Chris Brink says universities have to focus on how they relate to their local contexts and – as it is not enough to ask what universities are good at – we must also ask what universities are good for.
At the heart of South Africa’s simultaneous crises of poverty and inequality is its unbelievably high unemployment rate – close to 50% for youth – attributable to a combination of structural, economic, and social factors stemming from the stultification of opportunities for black South Africans under apartheid and exacerbated by limited access to education and skills training. Resolving these crises hinges largely on understanding how we can stimulate economic growth to create greater employment opportunities. Telling people what to do rarely has the desired effect; engaging with them to find out what they really need and then supporting them is much more effective.
Thus community engagement has become an increasingly important aspect of higher education institutions in South Africa, and for good reason: it is a way for universities to contribute to social development, promote inclusivity, and address some of the pressing issues local communities face.
The inherent nature of community engagement prompts students and alumni to integrate themselves into their communities and broader South African society to contribute through direct interaction or material assistance. “Instilling a culture of entrepreneurship across universities is key to the advancement of social welfare and economic development in the region,” says British Council South Africa country director Susana Galvan.
According to strategy and management consultancy McKinsey, “Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across South Africa represent more than 95% of businesses, employ between 50% and 60% of the country’s workforce across all sectors, and are responsible for a quarter of job growth in the private sector. And while the GDP contributions from South Africa’s
SMEs lag other regions – 39% compared to 57% in the EU – there is no doubt that this sector is a critical engine of the economy.” In essence, SMMEs are the lifeblood of the South African economy.
Critical nature of relationship goes both ways
Small and micro businesses are also critical stakeholders for higher education institutions in South Africa. Community engagement with these businesses is vital for higher education institutions for several reasons:
- Community interaction helps shape the curriculum
- Work-integrated learning and immersion in real-world business challenges adds a significant learning dimension for our students
- The strong relationships developed between students, alumni and the business school enable stronger networking and communal efforts to resolve burning issues in the community; and
- By investing in our greatest asset in South Africa – our people – we will build a better South Africa together.
Initiative takes a three-pronged approach
These small enterprises often face challenges, including limited access to finance, markets, and resources. Regenesys Business School has long acknowledged the significance of fostering well-rounded individuals through a holistic approach that caters to the social and business requirements of marginalised communities, and by aiding entrepreneurial endeavours in the SMME sector. Its efforts are now being formalised though Regenesys’ newly formed Community Engagement Initiative, intended to promote job creation, mitigate poverty, and foster a thriving small business sector that contributes to the growth of the economy by unleashing the full potential of our community. Staff and students will partner with micro- and small businesses in the wider Gauteng region to provide training and guidance on managing and expanding these enterprises using a three-pronged approach:
- Community research partnerships: Regenesys will engage with stakeholders and small and micro businesses through community research partnerships. Through this we can build stronger relationships with local communities and gain valuable insights into the challenges they face. Businesses are invited to partner Regenesys to provide internships, mentorships, physical space, start-up capital or to be angel investors.
- Business Incubation and Acceleration Clinic: The clinic’s services will include business training and development, access to finance, mentorship and coaching, and provide networking opportunities to help small and micro businesses expand and create jobs. Our lecturers, high profile businesspeople and corporate leaders from the Sandton community will share their business wisdom, knowledge and motivation with participants.
- Service Learning: Service learning integrates community service with academic coursework. Students, through service-learning programmes, will be able to work on community projects, support small and micro businesses, and gain practical experience while earning academic credit for the work they do via their programmes. Business faculty and students will act as coaches and mentors in the business incubator, and students and faculty from the School of Law are setting up a law clinic to help entrepreneurs with contracts, agreements and human resource issues.
Working together, we can develop solutions to complex problems, build capacity, and create sustainable change.