Recently, many articles and discussions have cautioned South African institutions and organisations against becoming caught up in the hype of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).
If we are to accept that these are not buzzwords but have become reality, we should call for these institutions and organisations to be responsive and agile. We should steer discussions towards how universities should proactively respond to this shift.
Universities have a moral and ethical responsibility to develop and facilitate the use of 4IR technologies to empower society, particularly for social change and social justice. In a country such as ours, which has been named the most economically unequal in the world (according to the World Bank), universities should be at the forefront of using the 4IR and the power of technology to address the enduring legacy of apartheid.
Against the backdrop of an increasingly synchronised global economy and rapid technological advances, South African universities have a pivotal role to play in providingtheir students with the skills they need to exploit the possibilities of the digital world fully.
Universities need to reflect and interrogate what they have to offer to all communities, including those that may not have direct access to the studies and research produced. Community engagement— a core responsibility of South African universities — means research, teaching and learning have the potential to change the worlds of many people.
There are a number of ways in which universities are already working with students to foster entrepreneurial thinking and to develop the confidence to innovate and access opportunities beyond the limits set by their personal or economic circumstances. For example, providing students with opportunities to learn coding outside their qualification requirements or without moving radically outside the boundaries of traditional disciplines, using interactive pedagogical interventions that enable students to craft real solutions to real problems.
Universities can help their students to develop skills and attitudes outside the traditional boundaries of their disciplines and conventional thinking about the employment-degree nexus. It can be argued that economically marginalised South Africans are the most likely to remain trapped in the cycle of poverty and inequality, and require enhanced access and more varied entry points to the mainstream economy.
As economist and philosopher Amartya Sen observed, “Poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realise one’s full potential as a human being.” Approaches to education that embrace the benefits of the 4IR (including greater access to and affordability of education) and the digital revolution offer universities opportunities to transform in pursuit of a social justice agenda, which holds that all people should have equal access to wealth, health, well-being, justice and opportunity.
What emerged from the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa is that the continent is at a tipping point — and the 4IR has the potential to turbocharge the socioeconomic development across Africa. WEF Africa has highlighted that technologies such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things offer a new vision for economic growth, innovation, development and well-being.
According to the WEF, each of the four industrial revolutions has resulted in dire predictions of massive job losses. These concerns were clearly misplaced, with the number of jobs actually increasing in each new revolution, together with improved living standards and other social indicators.
Universities generate knowledge and prepare people for the world of work in line with evolving social and economic requirements. Universities advocate and promote social justice, an exercise that may be more accessible to a society in which people communicate through platforms such as social media, email and other tools afforded by the 4IR. For example, basic legal guidance on common matters of concern can be provided free to the public using an app that is sophisticated yet inexpensive.
Nothing can stop the march of digital technology. The digital revolution has already transformed the banking sector by eliminating queuing and paperwork, and even the need to visit a branch, thanks to online and mobile banking. In the healthcare sector, technological developments are enabling greater analysis of vast amounts of data and more accurate diagnoses as a result. And self-driving technology is set to transform transport and logistics.
If we accept that technology is changing all industries, then we must accept that the education sector is no different. The use of technology in tertiary education is leading to profound changes — from making education more accessible to students off campus to making it more meaningful and improving the ways that lecturers and students interact.
The place of universities in achieving social justice is recognised by the state. An important dimension of access to higher education is affordability. To this end, there is a clear national commitment to the provision of funding, both by the state and universities, to ensure that students are able to cover the cost of tertiary education.
Widening of access at the entry point to universities (and arguably just as much in the TVET colleges and schools) must be matched equally and with vigour with provisions of access at the exit. In other words, the graduate must be equipped with the tools needed either for entrepreneurial activity or for a rapidly changing employment environment. Our graduates need to be chameleon-like in their ability to adapt.
The university experience beyond the walls of the classrooms should leverage the intangible aspects of university life and ensure that these are integrated into the learning experience as far as possible.
These are the ingredients that could create new possibilities for our economy.
The 4IR presents an invaluable moment in history to prepare graduates for a new world and to ensure they are equipped with the skills they need to be employable citizens.
Essentially, it’s not just about getting students to register for a degree; instead, universities have to accept the added responsibility of ensuring that the learning focus areas selected give students an edge and provide all those skills, including those personal skills, that are required for the future.
Dr Kirti Menon is senior director in the division for academic planning, quality promotion and academic staff development at the University of Johannesburg and Gloria Castrillon is director at the centre for academic planning and quality promotion at the institution