The role of universities in the industrial revolution

Future professionals need to be ready for opportunities that will arise from 4IR. What is the role of universities in the industrial revolution, and are they ready?

THENSA  is a driver for 4IR solutions. We are recognised as a vibrant, innovative consortium for advancing technology-focused institutions in South Africa with a transformative societal impact. 

Our annual conference in 2019 was themed “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: The role of universities”. Delegates were provided with this key message:    

“Universities have always emphasised their role in shaping future technology by being the test-beds for innovation and educating future generations.” 

The result of higher education being affected by the  Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and how the delivery of education will be transformed will be dependent on delivering the right skills and knowledge. 

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government, industry, and universities rushed to cooperate to mitigate the impacts of the crisis.

Overall, the South African government, industry and universities have weathered the storm unleashed by COVID-19. The responses to the pandemic’s disruptions are just the beginning of South Africa’s experience with the 4IR. 

Yet the interventions developed by universities in collaboration with the government and industry may not be sustainable when looking at South Africa’s current innovation and industrial policies.

4IR and education

Education is rapidly changing, and universities play a pivotal role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Are graduates ready for new opportunities that are coming their way? 4IR is drastically changing the current business model, with many new jobs emerging at a rapid speed. “Traditional”  skill sets will change within industries and transform how and where we work.

To equip students with these 4IR-driven changes, the curriculums need to be developed, giving students the ability to meet the challenges of this new world of work head-on. 

Defining degrees and qualifications, how curriculums are packaged, how students learn and how lecturers teach are all essential points to be implemented.

Ensuring graduates succeed in this new world is the critical role of universities in the industrial revolution. Although daunting and disruptive, it is also exciting and will create new jobs within the science, technology, maths, engineering, and computer science fields. 

The demand for skilled professionals within these professions will be high given the need to provide knowledge, encourage knowledge sharing and use the latest analytical tools to adapt and innovate.

Ensuring “future readiness” 

Gearing curricula to be ready for the skills needed today and tomorrow’s new technological advanced skills is crucial. Lectures and institutes need to encourage soft skills such as:

  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Emotional intelligence

What is next?

Will the traditional three or four-year degrees be sufficient to meet the demands of 4IR and are the current qualifications too rigid for the young people of today? These questions need to be analysed in the role of universities in the industrial revolution. 

Discussions have arisen questioning whether creating more flexible hop-on/hop-off curriculums will allow students to study different courses that respond to the ever-changing environment. 

“In order for South Africa to embark on the path of economic recovery and technological innovation, we need global partnerships between Universities, Businesses and Government to ensure our local knowledge economy remains internationally competitive”, explains Dr Anshu Padayachee, Our Chief Executive Officer of THENSA.

Technological innovation at universities in SA is imperative in the readiness of 4IR. Let us work together and meet it head-on.