Globally, we are on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate with one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know quite how this will actually unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and receptive, involving all stakeholders in the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society. Very simply put, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) represents a fusion of technologies that are blurring the boundaries physically, digitally, and biologically. The implications of the 4IR for business, industry, and our daily lives remain to some extent speculative. Just what it might mean for post-school education, especially in the field of business and management practices, received less attention, although the implications are extensive – both in terms of what universities and business schools can (or should) contribute to the 4IR and its applications, and how curricula and learning will need to change.

The role of the UFS Business School 

The role of business schools as agents of economic development has been well documented. Business schools need to gain increasing prominence as knowledge innovators and actors, which is key to competitiveness, while serving as the catalyst for economic growth and wealth creation. Such entities need to take moral responsibility to disseminate the necessary knowledge, values and skills, and awareness to create a sustainable and fair future.

The UFS Business School intends to move towards building an ecosystem of entrepreneurialism, one in which ‘third’ mission objectives continue to resonate and be elevated. The role that the UFS Business School intends to play in opportunity-driven initiatives (start-up creation, patenting, licensing, venture capital formation, incubation facilities), technology transfer, and the commercialisation of intellectual property, will feature as key considerations going forward. Our capacity to continually create and innovate and forge university-industry linkages will continue apace, and increased value will be created through these kinds of partnerships, allowing for new ideas to inform and permeate the academic research agenda, while addressing scientific concerns as well as practical problems, thus increasing the UFS Business School’s financial independence through its own income-generating capabilities.

This thus allows for heightened levels of sustainable economic development and societal advancement and speaks additionally and directly to a just energy transition. Ultimately, the underlying argument in favour of engagement in science-based innovation activities at universities is the facilitation of economic development, job creation, a just energy transition, and renewed levels of global competitiveness. Our nascent academic entrepreneurs and students need to acquire entrepreneurial skills and competencies to create successful spin-offs and venture-formation initiatives, especially among a cross-section of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). It is well known that entrepreneurial competencies are linked to venture performance. Essentially, the UFS Business School (to reiterate) intends to become an entrepreneurial ecosystem committed to responsible science and the generation of credible knowledge strong in integrity and high in relevance, thus ensuring that the interface between theory and praxis is properly fulfilled.

As mentioned above, specific focus will coalesce around the SME environment, and the UFS Business School will attempt to ensure that small businesses get to work with academics, policy makers, regulators, and the private sector in creating an environment that is conducive to growth and competitiveness. The UFS Business School envisages a South Africa where small and medium-sized businesses are supported by thoughtful, evidence-based policy that limits obstacles to their success and sustainability, and works to eliminate structural impediments to competition, access to markets, and effective entry into supply chains. SMEs need to be supported in legislation, regulation, and procurement policies.

Business School landscape going forward

Consulting and incubation services will feature prominently in the UFS Business School landscape going forward, focusing on the business resilience of SMEs in challenging economic conditions, and ensuring that premium services are provided to start-ups with high growth potential (for example partnerships with venture capitalists). The Business School also intends (in addition to its formal offerings – see above) to build a more focused short-learning programme menu, thus developing a distinct reputation for specialised SME expertise that can serve as a brand on the basis of which it can expand its business. An additional focus will be on the delivery of premium services to start-ups with high growth potential. It is also not lost on the UFS Business School that it needs to expand its repertoire of services and offerings to academically undeserved rural provinces (and small towns) where SMEs dominate the economy and where the issue of business resilience, particularly during periods of economic distress, is a key concern.

A focus of the Business School, aligned with the articulation above, will be the commencement of a number of initiatives to increase our students’ exposure to climate-smart and inclusive innovations, thus exploring systemic pathways and solutions towards addressing the enormous challenges presented by climate change and energy sustainability. We need to foster thinking about how we can begin to engage with new and differentiated approaches in tackling these challenges. We need to rethink our relationship with nature, shift human behaviour, and reimagine the vital systems that underpin our societies. Our youth in particular are calling for renewable energy, green jobs, and climate finance that open new opportunities to strengthen economic security while accelerating climate change action. The UFS Business School will attempt to create truly transformational change and accelerate the transition to a sustainable green economy through greater co-operation, collaboration, and cross-sector partnerships with all constituencies in the value chain. In a few years from now, the Business School (through its incubation, start-up, and venture capital initiatives) will want to showcase, as an example, its internally developed and manufactured flying drones, climbing 100 m to aerially inspect agricultural farmland in order to help farmers reduce their costs and increase their yields by collecting and analysing multi-spectral drone data, thus providing information to make better decisions. We will do this by partnering and collaborating with all relevant actors, including government and industry.

The new direction of the UFS Business School – while remaining true to its formal and official offerings in which the theoretical and methodological underpinnings informing such courses will continue to remain stringently rigorous (Higher Certificate, Bachelor of Management Leadership [BML], Postgraduate Diploma in Business Administration [PGDip], Master of Business Administration [MBA], and PhD with specialisation in Business Administration) – thus intends to begin a series of entrepreneurship training programmes that focus, to reiterate, on equipping individuals in the SME sector in particular, with the knowledge and skills to launch and operate business ventures. The Business School is of the strong and unfettered opinion that entrepreneurship training is a key practical means to create new business and venture formation. Indeed, meta-analytic research has provided incontrovertible evidence that entrepreneurship training is effective in promoting cognitive and motivational outcomes, resulting in more start-ups and higher performance. There is a compelling need in South Africa, and in the higher education sector in particular, to activate entrepreneurial scholars as agents of change.

Over the past few years, external organisations and entities have shown a significant appetite to partner with the UFS in recognition of its new and visionary leadership; its commitment to academic, scholarly, and research excellence; its vision of fulfilling the imperatives of a ‘just transition’; its commitment to making a measurable contribution to addressing the issues of poverty, inequality, and employment through rigorous scholarship and research; as well as its undertaking to address the needs of marginalised and peripheralised communities that rarely feature in our debates and discourses on development. At the UFS, and the Business School in particular, we want to support emerging entrepreneurs in sectors that are not often fully recognised, and who find themselves in geographically dispersed and disparate peri-urban and rural areas. Needless to say, the UFS has also made huge strides in fulfilling its transformation objectives.