Fourth industrial revolution must not cement inequality


Leaders from institutions spanning banking, academia and telecommunications bemoan how South Africa is unprepared for the fourth industrial revolution. This at a juncture at which there is considerable global interest about its potential — undergirded by artificial intelligence — to propel economic and social progression.

A word of caution, however, is critical. The fourth industrial revolution can also reproduce and cement existing inequality.

All initiatives to ensure that South Africa benefits from this “great transformation” should not further marginalise those already at the periphery. These include young people without access to good quality education, jobless youth who are inadequately prepared for the labour market and children who learn under the most dehumanising conditions. The fourth industrial revolution has to empower them and also uplift them from their current situations.

The results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss), released in 2016, reflected poor performances by South African pupils in grades five and nine. The country was among the five lowest performers in maths and science. Although the study focused only on 59 countries, it demonstrates the urgent need to improve the quality of education.

The worst-performing pupils in South Africa were those at no-fee public schools, who most often are from the poorest households. Pupils at the independent schools performed the best, followed by those from fee-paying public schools.

Gainful employment in many industries of the future will require a grasp of maths and science fundamentals.

The McKinsey Global Institute, in a December 2017 report, notes that around the world 75-million to 375-million workers may need to switch occupational categories by 2030 as a result of automation.

A steady stream of capable young people studying in the relevant fields at tertiary and other levels will be crucial for South Africa.

Without fundamentally improving the accessibility of high-quality education to those from the poorest households, the fourth industrial revolution will continue to reproduce inequality.

Privileged pupils— by virtue of their homes and schools— will benefit the most. They are likely to have, for instance, the complex problem-solving, critical thinking and maths skills that are essential to flourish for studies and work in the industries of the future.

Robust discussions about how to prepare South Africa for the future are necessary. There should be concerted efforts to ensure that young people from the most marginalised sections of society are able to participate fully and to realise their potential as the fourth industrial revolution unfolds.

The private sector, government, civil society and other role players have to be even more actively involved in initiatives to improve the quality of education and skills, especially for those at the periphery. This could be done by adopting under-resourced schools, funding scholarships and setting up training academies in relevant fields. Investments in developing innovative curriculums and teaching methods are also essential.

Research has also shown that high-quality teachers and leaders in the school system lead to better outcomes for pupils. In public schools, particularly the no-fee paying entities, deficiencies in leadership and the quality of teachers require urgent attention.

Evidence has shown that, even though most school leaders and teachers try their best, they often do not have the skills and training to ensure that they deliver on the aims of the curriculum. Stakeholders have to explore the opportunities and potential for artificial intelligence to plug these gaps

Young graduates who are unprepared for the fourth industrial revolution labour market definitely need reskilling. This is urgent. Schools must be improved so that pupils can go on and study in fields that are relevant to the industries of the future.

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