Universities are key to 4IR employment

(John McCann/M&G)

(John McCann/M&G)

COMMENT

Universities in Africa, as with their counterparts globally, are required to contribute to the advancement and development of their societies. This needs to be underpinned by teaching and learning strategies that create well educated, socially conscious citizens who are equipped with skills for their era, in this case the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

The 4IR is creating overarching conditions that have important implications for our universities: what we teach, what we research and our contribution to the economy, employment and society. This requires a deliberate leveraging and repositioning of our universities to optimise our role in reconstructing South Africa’s future and the associated development and employment landscape.

Shahid Yusuf, chief economist of The Growth Dialogue at the George Washington University school of business in Washington DC and formerly with the World Bank, has written widely about university-industry links.
What he said in 2007 in a World Bank publication, titled How Universities Promote Economic Growth, is relevant to where we find ourselves today.

He offered the examples of the role of German universities in the advancement of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries in the late 19th century; the role played by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the growth of industry in Massachusetts; and the contribution to agricultural development and engineering by the land-grant universities in the United States from 1862, including MIT and Cornell University.

Yusuf argues that economic competitiveness and the most economically beneficial technological innovations can be traced directly or indirectly to universities — through the training of highly and relevantly skilled individuals, and through knowledge production and research.

The most sought-after 4IR skills with high employment prospects are in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. Qualifications such as data science and geoinformatics are increasingly in demand as new technologies and digital platforms are making it possible to generate huge amounts of data and are changing the ways that knowledge is produced, accessed and used.

The new professions need to be weighed against those that are at risk of disappearing as a result of advances in big data, cloud computing and machine learning. Many jobs are automatable, especially those that entail routine, predictable tasks that can be performed by sophisticated algorithms.

This suggests that certain high-skilled jobs, such as x-ray image analysis, legal research and financial analysis, are as prone to automation as low-skilled jobs.

The University of Pretoria (UP) is cognisant of this and is proactively positioning itself as a 4IR leader in several sought-after fields. One of these is engineering and we launched a hub called Engineering 4.0 in August 2018. Engineering 4.0 focuses on smart cities and transport for economic development in a disruptive 4IR society, with the associated development of civil engineering skills and technology and data sciences, which are also offered to all our other faculties.

South Africa needs civil engineers. The South African Institution Of Civil Engineering indicates that in Europe, North America, India and China there are 130 to 450 people per engineer. In South Africa this ratio is 3 200 to one.

Across all disciplines, we strongly encourage our students to invent, create, discover and explore their role in contributing to a future-focused, transformative society where their research can lead to solutions to pressing societal needs. UP’s new Future Africa campus is a wonderful transdisciplinary space for this. It is founded on pedagogical approaches that engender active learning, active citizens and active employment.

This approach is elaborated on by professor Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University in Boston, in his 2017 book Robot-Proof on higher education in the age of artificial intelligence. A “robot-proof” education, Aoun argues, “is not concerned solely with topping up students’ minds with high-octane facts. Rather, it calibrates them with a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent, discover, or create something valuable to society — a scientific proof, a hip-hop recording, a web comic, a cure for cancer.”

Dr Nancy W Gleason, director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, in her 2018 book on Singapore’s higher education systems in the 4IR era, argues that higher education today is not just about producing graduates, it is about preparing “lifelong learners”.

Recent government initiatives in Singapore reflect a determined commitment to develop skilled, lifelong learners for the automation economy. Singapore has launched three initiatives — Smart Nation Singapore, SkillsFuture, and the creation of three new universities — in preparation for the automation economy and with the specific intention of addressing employability.

Gleason says: “Adaptive, flexible minds will be the most employable in the future, as they will have the cognitive agility to keep up with the fast-paced shifts in workplace projects.” This highlights the importance of the humanities and social sciences in developing the emotional intelligence, creativity, writing and communications skills required to thrive in the 4IR workplace. What is valued today is a student who has mastered the “six Cs” — think critically, communicate clearly, use connectivity, develop creativity, work collaboratively and embrace culture.

The new Javett Art Centre at UP specifically explores our creativity, connective humanity and cultures. It is also a driver of transdisciplinary research between the humanities and all our other faculties, providing a unique creative space for academics, researchers and students from all disciplines.

The overall goal is to bring us to a deeper understanding of who we are and how we lead ourselves and our planet forward in a more equal, socially just and environmentally conscious way. This requires universities today to engage far more closely between faculties and with the market, industry and society.

This engagement is discussed in the 2017 book titled Castells in Africa: Universities and Development, edited by professor Nico Cloete, the director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust and co-ordinator of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa and professor Peter Maassen, professor in higher education studies at the University of Oslo in Norway.

The editors explain that the returns from such an engagement put the university in a strong position to contribute to social and economic development and employment “by producing what Castells refers to as ‘self-programmable’ graduates”.

These are “skilled individuals with the ability to change and adapt to many different occupations and new technologies all through one’s professional life”.

Tawana Kupe is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria

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