Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Is South Africa producing enough scientists?

One of the most pressing questions facing South Africa is whether our educational system is producing enough graduates in the sciences field to fill the country’s needs, particularly, engineers, scientists and researchers. These are of course critical vocations to the country’s infrastructure maintenance and to creating enough future infrastructure to support its needs. They are also critical to research and innovation and to ensure that South Africa can sustain and grow the industries that require scientific professionals.

Running out of scientists

Various analysts have expressed concern over a dual challenge that faces South Africa. In the first place there is the so-called “brain drain” where highly qualified people in the sciences are leaving the country to take up opportunities elsewhere. Much has been discussed about ways to retain these skilled personnel but the fact remains is that due to the rand’s low value relative to the world’s major currencies like the dollar, pound and Euro, South African firms are not able to equally compete with overseas companies that can pay much higher salaries in rand terms.

The second concern was highlighted by science and technology minister, Naledi Pandor. The government has identified a disproportionate number of our scientists are nearing retirement age. More explicitly, over half of South Africa’s existing scientists are due to retire in the next decade. On the face of it, this brings the stark reality that the country needs to produce more scientists to replace the retiring ones.

Over half of the scientific papers produced for scientific journals are now coming from this older demographic – compared to only one in ten a couple of decades ago. This clearly shows that there has been a dramatic slowdown in the number of developing researchers and scientists. It is possible that younger scientists are simply not producing as many papers but the more likely scenario is that there are not enough younger ones.

Skills transfer challenges

Much more worryingly from an educational perspective is that not only will these scientists be lost to the scientific community, they will also be lost to the educational sector. There will be a significant decrease in the number of scientists available to teach and consult in tertiary education institutions. This means that not only is our pool of scientists growing smaller but also our capacity to refill that pool through education and skills and knowledge transfer will suffer as well. The simple fact is that over the past decade the number of postgraduate enrolments in the sciences has not grown fast enough.

The bottom line is that South Africa needs to tackle this multi-faceted problem as soon as possible. It needs to replace the scientists who will be leaving their professions, while simultaneously having enough science educationalists to train the next generation. At the same time it needs to attract more young people to the scientific disciplines, which leads to a further need to engage interested learners in these disciplines when they make their subject choices at school. The school curricula needs to be of a high enough standard to properly prepare our next potential scientists for their university studies.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Education for social entrepreneurship

Social entrepreneurship is important because it blurs the line between for-profit and non-profit enterprises, simultaneously opening opportunities between the two where both profit and positive social impact are desired outcomes. At the heart of social entrepreneurship lies the notion of using business principles, strategies and actions to have a positive effect on the wider community and society as a whole.

While definitions of the term “social entrepreneur” differ, there’s little doubt that the sentiment behind it springs from broader social concerns that are informing today’s generation. Today’s students want make their own contributions to the burning issues of their generation: the environment, world poverty and healthcare. This is where the wellspring of social entrepreneurship lies.

Taking aim at these issues using the principles of social entrepreneurship helps to create new solutions, not least because social entrepreneurship reframes the issues in a broader context. Social entrepreneurship education helps to refocus the lens and produce individuals who have the type of social entrepreneurship skills that can drive change in business objectives and solve social problems.

Consequently many higher learning institutions have recognised the importance of social entrepreneurship by creating formal courses, often as sub-courses in degrees like MBAs.

Social entrepreneurs as young leaders

Young social entrepreneurs can play a leadership role by infusing traditional business objectives with a social mission. The educational institutions charged with producing these young leaders need to make provision for them to learn the skills they need to reframe issues and create sustainable solutions out in the corporate world. It’s as much an existential issue as it is a practical one. Social entrepreneurship helps to answer some of the bigger questions that students and potential leaders encounter at tertiary institutions: “What is the broader purpose to my studies?”, “Why do I want to learn what I’m studying?” and “What am I going to do with what I have learnt?”. Institutions can help with this, not only by offering formal courses in social entrepreneurship, but by the social entrepreneurial environment that they can create within themselves.

Teaching social entrepreneurship is thus a key part of solving broader social issues. Entrepreneurial leadership types are characterised by drive and determination, the willingness to fail and persevere, and the ability to apply knowledge productively. These are also the characteristics of good leaders. So one can see how creating good leadership as well as social entrepreneurship are mutually reinforcing endeavours.

Social entrepreneurship in developing countries

The developing world is often a rich source of social entrepreneurship, for the simple reason that, in countries where poverty and a lack of infrastructure pose enormous challenges, the focus becomes using innovation, flair and determination to solve very basic social problems. This is an environment in which social entrepreneurship thrives. Most of this social entrepreneurship is focused internally on the countries’ own markets, and on addressing daily social problems.

The knock-on effect is that companies and other organisations from the developed world are able to take up on these social entrepreneurship ideas themselves, and use them in other contexts where they will prove to be of value in addressing similar issues.

Education often follows on, with tertiary institutions taking the lead from these companies and organisations and starting to include new social entrepreneurship ideas in their curricula in one way or another. And it is through this social entrepreneurship education that a new generation of students is given to the skills and tools to make an impact once they have graduated.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Creating an inclusive learning environment

An inclusive learning environment is one where everyone who is present feels included, and is able to actively engage while feeling safe and welcome. Importantly it also recognises and takes into account differences between learners, and values and encourages diversity. This is especially pertinent when the classroom is made up of people from different cultural backgrounds and languages, as is often the case in South Africa.

Impact of classroom climate on learning and performance

The climate in the classroom is a critical factor in the success of learning. It can make a huge difference. A warm, welcoming, safe, inclusive and nurturing space is much more likely to aid learning than a sterile, intimidating, unwelcoming one.

Teaching is a social activity and depends on the interaction between teacher and learner. We need to always bear this in mind, as the teacher’s approach and the climate he or she creates can have a big impact on learning and performance.

Here are some of the more specific ways in which an inclusive classroom climate positively affects learning and performance:

Participation in knowledge sharing
In an inclusive climate learners are more likely to participate in discussions and other interactions, as they feel that their contribution is valued. They are more likely to volunteer knowledge and opinions and to make a contribution, which benefits both the group and the individual. In a non-inclusive climate where not everyone feels equally valued, those who don’t will withdraw from participating.

Emotional reactions
More often than not, an inclusive learning classroom is filled with learners who have enthusiasm for learning and a desire for discovery, who have higher levels of self satisfaction and who take pride in their contributions and achievements. These emotions further reinforce the willingness and enjoyment of learning and contribute to the learner’s success.

Motivation for learning
Learners in an inclusive classroom environment are typically more motivated. This increased motivation is linked to the positive emotional experience mentioned above. By contrast, a non-inclusive classroom environment causes negative experiences like boredom or withdrawal.

Meeting expectations
Learners tend to perform in a way that is related to the expectations that are placed on them by the teacher. A learner who is expected and encouraged to do well will approach the task with more motivation and generally have better results as a consequence. This is also known as the Pygmalion effect, where learners meet the expectations of teachers if they believe that the teacher thinks they are smart and capable. Significantly, the opposite also occurs: when learners perceive that stereotypical negative expectations are being placed on them – for example, that underprivileged children don’t perform well – they tend to under perform, not matter how capable they actually are.

Another important characteristic of an inclusive learning environment is that it allows the teacher to use his or her authority to empower everyone to take ownership of the learning process. This requires recognising and including the perspectives of all the learners in the classroom, so that none of them will feel left out due to their perspectives not being represented, which can cause them to withdraw.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Education and high growth entrepreneurship

High growth entrepreneurship has not been mentioned in education circles for a very long. There are many definitions of the term, but for the purposes of this article we can take Autio’s description which is “strong owner-managerial aspiration for rapid organisational growth coupled with substantive potential for achieving this aspiration”1.

It’s only recently that the key role that high growth entrepreneurship plays has been highlighted. Its importance becomes clear when we look at its effect on economies. We know that employment, wealth creation and economic growth are achieved in economies where there is a thriving entrepreneurial class. Fostering these attributes is perhaps even more necessary in developing countries. High growth entrepreneurship drives faster development of these factors and high growth firms make a disproportionately large contribution to an economy. One of the reasons for this is that the technology opportunities that drive high growth entrepreneurship have expanded so rapidly.

In fact policy makers around the world are starting to understand and believe that high growth entrepreneurship is crucial for all countries, regardless of their levels of development. To the extent that the United Nations Foundation has asked a business and technology figure of the stature of Michael Dell be its Global Advocate for Entrepreneurship in order to “help shape and advance a global entrepreneurship agenda”2.

High growth entrepreneurship is richer territory than merely more companies producing more products and services more quickly. What it yields is entire economies becoming more vibrant, dynamic and entrepreneurial, which can entirely change a nation’s economic emphasis. It’s not all smooth sailing though – high growth entrepreneurship can be disruptive, making it difficult for government and business to fully take it on board3.

The influence of education

Education levels, the richness of the educational environment, the encouraging of entrepreneurial traits in educational institutions, formal educational courses – these have all been identified as having a positive influence on the development of entrepreneurial drive and subsequent entrepreneurial activity and success.

So it follows that the more hospitable the environment for entrepreneurial development and the more education that can be provided, the more high growth entrepreneurs will be produced.

All of the knowledge related to the influence of education on high growth entrepreneurship shows that high growth entrepreneurs have higher levels of education than average. In turn, higher growth firms usually have founders with higher levels of education than lower growth companies4. More pointedly, there is a lot of evidence from studies in at least 20 African countries that examined the effect of schooling on entrepreneurial performance. It all supports the idea that the more highly educated the entrepreneur, the superior the entrepreneurial performance5.

The message is clear: we need to provide as much of the right sort of entrepreneurial education to as a high a level as possible, and place this within reach of as many learners as possible. In this way high growth entrepreneurship will be maximised, thus stimulating the economy, creating wealth and creating employment.

1. Autio, Erkko (2009) : The Finnish paradox: The curious absence of high-
growth entrepreneurship in Finland, ETLA discussion paper, No. 1197

2. Atkinson, Rob (2015) : “High-Growth Entrepreneurship for Development: Report of a Roundtable with Michael Dell”

3. Ibid

4. Audretsch, David B. (2012) : “Determinants of High-Growth Entrepreneurship”, Report prepared for the OECD/DBA International Workshop on High-growth firms: local policies and local determinants, Copenhagen

5. Sleuwaegen, Leo and Goedhuys, Micheline (2009) : “High-growth entrepreneurial firms in Africa: a quantile regression approach”, Small Business Economics