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Universities have ‘pivotal role’ to play in Fourth Industrial Revolution

Dr Kirti Menon and Gloria Castrillon recently penned an opinion piece published in the Daily Maverick, 15 April 2019.

Higher education reforms are needed to ensure South African graduates are ready to harness the new opportunities that are coming their way.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is changing business models in many industries, resulting in major disruptions to labour markets. This is affirmed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) on multiple platforms that new categories of jobs will emerge, partly or wholly displacing others. The skill sets required in both old and new occupations will change in most industries and transform how and where people work. WEF’s 2018 “Future of Jobs” report says organisational leaders must prepare for a perfect storm of unprecedented technical, socio-economic, geopolitical and demographic drivers.

The critical question is whether higher education has the ability to respond with the required speed? The 4IR offers the mega potential to transform and realign the South African economy and our society. To equip students for the 4IR requires a holistic approach to curriculum development and teaching that will give them the ability and agility to keep pace with innovation and meet the challenges of this new world of work.

How do universities respond to the perfect storm? Has innovation outpaced higher education’s ability to respond? Our active interventions as universities are critical, yet we are often slow to embrace change. University faculties and curricula are designed to educate students much as we did last century, albeit with new technology. Hamstrung as we are by our entanglement in the bureaucracy that characterises universities, how can we transform to deal with these new challenges? How do we reinvent university education to develop creativity, innovation, curiosity and critical thinking? While these skills are not new, the application of these in our rapidly changing contexts certainly are.

The conversation begins, against the backdrop of teaching and learning perspectives, with asking questions about how qualifications are defined, how curricula are packaged, how our students learn, how we teach, how we define pedagogy and how we continue to advance student diversity. At the same time as these complex conversations take place, we cannot lose sight of the fact that it is incumbent upon universities to ensure that graduates are able to succeed.

According to WEF’s 2017 report, “The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa”, although the 4IR may be disruptive to many occupations, it is also projected to create a wide range of new jobs in fields such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), data analysis, computer science and engineering.

There will be strong demand for professionals who can blend digital and STEM skills with traditional subject expertise, such as digital-mechanical engineers and business operations data analysts, who combine deep knowledge of their industry with the latest analytical tools to quickly adapt business strategies, the report says.

It is for these reasons that we need to ensure the “future-readiness” of curricula. This requires universities to develop not just the skills needed today, but also those that will leverage the technological advances of tomorrow. We need to encourage critical thinking, creativity, cognitive flexibility and emotional intelligence, as opposed to rote learning, to match the way people will increasingly work and collaborate in the 4IR.

We need to be “front-loading” knowledge and skills in a contact situation in a more flexible way. Modalities of learning including where and how we learn to require the integration of university curricula with the online world. It cannot be business as usual at the university.

Tensions inevitably arise in these conversations because universities continue to develop curricula in line with traditional organising principles around knowledge. Who’s to say, for example, that an engineering student should not study psychology, given the relationship between humans and the products that we use every day? Why should a healthcare sciences student be precluded from a major in philosophy when they are preparing for a career that will require them to deal daily with issues of life and death? How can you become an architect in South Africa without understanding the history of apartheid and its impact on spatial planning?

We have to examine whether traditional three-to-four-year degrees will yield the competencies needed to deal with the demands of the 4IR, and whether the rigidity of current qualification structures is in the interest of our young people. Should we not be creating flexible hop-on/hop-off curricula that offer students the ability to break out of rigid knowledge silos and do a range of courses that better prepare them for a radically different, complex and agile marketplace? Similarly, should we not be actively encouraging students to cross disciplinary boundaries with a view to liberating new questions and new ideas in response to both old and new problems?

There are no clear answers, but there is no doubt that universities have a responsibility to open up these conversations and ask critical questions if we want our graduates to be ready for the end of the world as we know it.

Dr Kirti Menon is Senior Director of the Division for Academic Planning, Quality Promotion and Academic Staff Development, University of Johannesburg

Gloria Castrillon is the Director: Centre for Academic Planning and Quality Promotion, University of Johannesburg

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg

Dr Kirti Menon
Dr Kirti Menon


Gloria Castrillon
Gloria Castrillon
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