/ 25 October 2019

An uncertain future means graduates need new skills

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)




Along with other initiatives, the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and the ways of thinking it encourages may well provide new ways of thinking about education and its role in eradicating the poverty and the inequality at the heart of South Africa’s stratified society.

A World Bank working paper, titled Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa: An Assessment of Drivers, Constraints and Opportunities, concludes that despite improvements recorded from 1994, the “trajectory of poverty reduction was reversed between 2011 and 2015”, which threatened to erode the advances made in the period preceding this.

Also significant is that the nature of inequality appears to have changed, with skills and labour market factors appearing to have gained in significance in respect of poverty and inequality, as race and gender weaken. What this implies is that an additional layer of complexity has been added to any discussion of inequality. The role of class remains core and chronic poverty remains a key determinant of poverty, which means that persistent poverty continues.

Given the role of skills in poverty reduction, and against this bleak backdrop, what contribution can universitites make, especially in light of the current national and sector focus on the 4IR? The role of the higher education sector in unlocking the potential of the country’s labour market to promote growth through skilling graduates to meet the demands of employment and job creation cannot be overemphasised.

A key focus is the advent of new technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, big data and analytics, and equipping graduates with the skills needed to learn quickly and effectively to apply these to solve problems — whether in the context of research or in a current or future workplace. Consider, by way of example, the effect of 4IR technologies on the future career of a graduate with a BCom in logistics management. Given the way in which companies will manage logistics and supply chain practices in the future, the fundamental knowledge obtained from the degree may still be required, but also a set of new skills and attributes will be needed if they are to operate effectively.

To make the move from a linear approach — degree equates to a specific job — to a more 4IR-ready approach (multiple skills needed for as yet unidentified problems), an interdisciplinary, holistic approach to education is needed, which will allow for the creation of curricula that better suit students and industry. Degrees and diplomas can be designed to prepare students for rapidly changing social and economic conditions. This can be done by empowering them with a broader view, deeper insights and problem-solving skills critical to a knowledge economy that requires a workforce adept at addressing current and emerging challenges, many of which are unknown.

But some of the skills and competences developed today might not be relevant in the future. Future- fit education should focus on the development of deep skills that are contemporaneous, transferable and adaptable.

A second example from the area of robotics, which has already changed how pharmacists work, moving them away from the physical dispensing of medicines to the more intellectual aspects of pharmaceutical delivery and general wellbeing and support. The pharmacists of the future will not be pill counters or dispensers, but valued for a level of knowledge and expertise that cannot be replaced by AI. Much the same is expected in the profession of chartered accountancy, because the accountants of the future will be required to use the latest technologies to provide a competitive edge for their clients to enable more advanced, evidence- and data-led business thinking and decision-making.

As a brief survey of current writing in business strategy demonstrates, it is not just the chief information officers who will have to stay abreast of sector trends. Across multiple levels, companies will need to leverage disruptive technologies to provide faster, better and more effective business operations. These business trends have significant implications for the education provided to students at all levels. Whether technical, or vocational, professional or academic, universities will have to find ways to do education differently so that graduates are best prepared for their futures. These deep seated changes must begin at school level.

With some exceptions, the higher education sector has adapted a narrow conceptualisation of qualifications. The approach has its roots directly in the legislative and quality framework in place for the past 20 or so years, in which skills and outcomes were linked to jobs or, more broadly, employability. Faculties by their nature are mega silos in which the various disciplines are housed. Crossing these defined lines in a university is often a complex path because there are timetable considerations, subsidy implications and even implications for workloads. Yet, current trends indicate that the demands made of higher education require a radical rethink.

In the business world, it has already been demonstrated that a silo mentality reduces operational efficiencies and destroys productive company cultures. For more than three decades, leaders have focused their efforts on breaking down the destructive organisational barriers created by silo thinking.

At an organisational level, it too is accepted that breaking down legacy silos enables the kinds of open communication and collaboration required for a culture of innovation. It is time for universities to follow suit and find innovative ways to modify degree programmes and introduce greater flexibility into curricula as well as teaching and learning approaches if they seek to fulfil the skills demand of the 4IR.

It ought to be possible, for example, to offer both specialisation and flexibility to students. For example, AI is not only a technical concern, there are human-machine, ethical and cultural implications. In a rapidly changing environment, education and how it is provided should be reflected on, monitored and adjusted as required. With technology having revolutionised many industries, academics have an important role to play as agents of change in higher education.

Given that 4IR is not an event but a process, academics will be called on to define what constitutes innovative curricula (much as they do with the current boundaries of research). In a world where interdisciplinary research is of growing importance, traditional departmental structures may be preventing education from evolving, and creating barriers between departments. Looking at international trends, it is clear that universities are focusing on how best to prepare higher education graduates for future employment and leadership positions. This will require dialogue between academics, employers and the public and private sectors.

Innovative universities are not afraid to embrace change, even if it is uncomfortable, because they are committed to preparing students for the modern world.

To encourage innovation, universities need to adopt technology across the board and gain buy-in from all academics to design and implement appropriate curriculum developments. Further, a truly innovative approach also requires the institution to continuously evaluate admission criteria, enrolment procedures, and how courses are taught — to develop in students the skills they need in the new world of work to play a critical role in narrowing the inequality gap.

Kirti Menon is the senior director in the division for academic planning, quality promotion and academic staff development and Gloria Castrillon is the director of the Centre for Academic Planning and Quality Promotion, University of Johannesburg