The events of the past few weeks in the area of tertiary education caused considerable upheaval, but according to Prof Jurie van Vuuren, Coordinator of the Chair in Entrepreneurship in the Department of Business Management at the University of Pretoria (UP), a few of the fundamental assumptions made by a number of those involved could have very serious consequences. Simplistically stated, it is suggested that prospective students should not have to pay for tuition, will successfully complete their degrees within the prescribed periods and will then be absorbed by the labour market.
The first assumption is that the 23 universities in the country will be able to physically accommodate thousands of additional students. However, in reality thousands of applicants have to be turned away annually, and the cost of tertiary education is only the tip of the iceberg. South Africa needs more universities. Even if a new university were to be built next to Tukkies tomorrow, it will be oversubscribed! The assumption that all students who are accepted will complete their degrees in the prescribed time, whether they be three-, four- or five-year programmes, has already been proved wrong by the high dropout figures reported at the end of the first, second and third years of study at universities.
The greatest flaw in this simplistic argument, however, is the assumption that successful students will all be absorbed into the labour market, Van Vuuren said. This is unlikely if the national economy continues to grow at the current pace. The thousands of students who are not accepted for study at universities do have several options, but the cost of obtaining an education at a private institution is excessive and could amount to between R50 000 and R65 000. Universities have a duty to find creative ways in which to broaden the scope of the courses on offer, as UP will indeed be doing in 2016. The main aim should be to empower ‘unsuccessful’ candidates to ensure that they will become economically active as soon as possible.
According to Prof van Vuuren, the best solution for students is to start thinking of themselves as entrepreneurs. The so-called ‘unsuccessful’ candidates should be rendered successful by making them realise that they are in fact enterprises, and that they should therefore invest in acquiring the appropriate skills. It has already been proven that new businesses do not fail because of a lack of capital, but rather because of a lack of skills. He recommends that consideration should be given to the implementation of programmes based on scientific principles, which is exactly what UP is doing with regard to its planned programme. Anyone can put together a programme and claim that it is excellent, but in order for it to be successful it has to be scientifically based.
The results achieved with any programme are important and can only be evaluated based on the answers to the following questions: ‘How many of the candidates who have been exposed to these skills started their own businesses?’ ‘How many of them expanded their businesses?’ ‘How many are still in business after three years?’ Prof van Vuuren mentioned that he often tells students that there are many possible routes to follow after completing matric, even if they were not accepted for study at a university, but that they have to change their thinking from believing that they have to find work to deciding to create work. However, they need to ensure that they first acquire the appropriate skills.
Tertiary education has always been expensive and will, within limits, remain so. The cost of tertiary education in relation to income will always be relatively high, but should be regarded as in investment in yourself as a business. In today’s world, training should include training in the use of technology, information on how to obtain capital, learning how to market one’s product or service and, above all, many more skills. Van Vuuren also emphasises the fostering of an entrepreneurial attitude that will enable candidates to start thinking bigger and more dynamically. A very successful South African entrepreneur once said: ‘If you think you have thought big, think twice as big.’ Such an approach will lead to real entrepreneurial growth. Currently the unemployment rate in South Africa stands at 25,7 per cent, in other words, 8 900 000 people are searching for jobs! Stop imagining that looking for a job is your only option if you do not at present qualify for study at a university or a private institution.
Some may think that this is an old refrain, Van Vuuren said, and he agreed that starting an own business is not easy – and after doing it three times he should know – but it is not impossible. Furthermore, the job satisfaction offered by a career as an entrepreneur is much greater that in any other profession, and the success achieved is exciting and motivating.