South Africa needs to think differently and embrace 4IR


To shape our future, our universities need to foster innovation and creativity. This is in response to South Africa’s history and a political system that did the opposite. We are seeing major disruptions to higher education — and the education system as a whole — not only at home but globally.

One of the major contributors to such disruptions is the paradigmatic shift brought about by the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), with huge implications for the world of work and in the extension of higher education and the students of the future.

With increased shifts away from an economy premised on labour and resource-intensive industries towards a knowledge economy, the skill sets and capabilities needed have shifted from being role- or industry-specific to transferable skills and capabilities centred on the four Cs — critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity.

These can be further broken down to encapsulate a range of capabilities such as problem solving, financial literacy, digital literacy, teamwork, marketing and presentation skills, and a range of other skills and capabilities that all hinge on the importance of adaptability of skills, individuals and teams.

If we look at the South African economy it has for long been premised on a very different labour market. This is not only reflected in low-skilled sectors of the job market, but because of our history and politics of isolation and exclusion, diversity, flexibility and creativity have never been a feature of our economy, job market, education system or societal organisation.

Here more flexible economies based on research and development (R&D) have a huge advantage and so their education systems are already attuned to an 4IR economy and the societal changes that drive it.

Thus an essential part of changing our society and economy relies on fostering new skills and capabilities. Here our higher education system has a big role to play, and we need to respond quickly. In this regard, internationalisation in the widest meaning possible is needed.

What then is meant by internationalisation of higher education? In broad terms it is a process of integrating international and intercultural dimensions into the functions and purpose of higher education. With the end of apartheid and the reacceptance and return of South Africa to the international community, government has made internationalisation of higher education a priority, and a draft policy framework was released in 2017.

For higher education institutions as well as government, policies and strategies will have to embed the internationalisation project in their 4IR strategies and vice versa.

Among other things the draft policy framework explicitly calls for internationalisation strategies to: improve international communication, crosscultural learning and global citizenship; improve peace and co-operation, and find solutions to global problems such as achieving sustainable development, ensuring security, providing renewable energy and reducing HIV; and contribute to an increase in knowledge production, intellectual property and innovation in South Africa. It is difficult to see how such recommendations could be fulfilled if not aligned to the broader societal and technological shifts triggered by 4IR.

And though international exchange programmes for students and staff, international research collaborations and partnerships are often at the core of the internationalisation project, there are equally strong opportunities, as set out in the draft policy, for taking local knowledge to the international community.

This is where the academy has the chance to be innovative and influence discussion about knowledge hierarchies and continuous legacies of Western hegemonic knowledge systems and knowledge transfer. In addition, by incorporating international and intercultural knowledge and abilities in the curriculum, students will be better prepared for a world of work that is international and multicultural. Multiculturalism and multicultural environments and contexts are also linked to increased creativity.

How can 4IR and internationalisation be linked and concretised in higher education? There are a few areas that immediately stand out.

The success of higher education in 4IR is dependent on cultivating innovative talent. In this regard, South Africa has not had an education system that has fostered innovative and creative thinkers.

The vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, Tshilidzi Marwala, and Bo Xing at the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the same university argue that “most developing or underdeveloped countries lack innovative talent” and as such higher education “should not only focus on training knowledge-based skilled persons, but have a good look at cultivating innovative talent” with interdisciplinary degrees and professional qualifications.

To achieve this we need to look at international degrees and how overseas institutions have developed degrees better suited to meeting the demands of 4IR and the changing world of work. And we need to ask: How creative are our degrees and the environment we create for our students?, How creative is my discipline?, What is the scope for innovation? and Does it open up for, and is it open to, interdisciplinary discussions, collaborations and epistemologies?

Encouraging innovation and fostering creative talent is directly linked to the success and growth of research and (R&D). Investing in R&D will require resources and to achieve this and international business collaborations and partnerships will play a crucial role. Although internationalisation projects have focused on research collaborations between academic institutions around the globe, the university, with regard to 4IR, will need to give serious attention to projects aimed at international collaboration between higher education institutions and the private sector, through R&D sharing, projects aimed at fostering and developing innovation and entrepreneurship, and the hosting of student projects and internships, for example.

But we must guard against an overreliance on technocratic approaches and discourses emanating from industry and policy-makers with vested interests. Instead, we need to be mindful of inclusive approaches towards redress and a comprehensive higher education system.

Equally, we must not forget the regional dimension of the internationalisation of higher education. It is imperative to strengthen African scholarship to make sure that internationalisation efforts truly benefit our own society and the continent first.

In light of our South African history of exclusionary and isolationist politics, the imperatives of restructuring higher education to meet the demands of 4IR are closely linked to the internationalisation project, and both are central to broader transformation agendas in higher education and for addressing inequities in all areas of scholarly endeavours in the country.

Ylva Rodny-Gumede is professor in the journalism, film and television department in the school of communication at the University of Johannesburg. This is an edited version of an address given to the Stellenbosch University Institutional Planning Forum last month

Ylva Rodny-gumede
Ylva Rodny-gumede

Ylva Rodny-Gumede is a professor in the department of journalism, film and television at the University of Johannesburg


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