University-industry collaboration for a smart future

The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is set to bring radical changes to the workplace – including the loss of jobs through automation and artificial intelligence (AI) – but industry will still need universities to provide the right kind of people. This makes effective collaboration between the two sectors even more important.

According to Sampan Silapanad, vice-president and general manager of Hard Disk Drive Operations at Western Digital in Thailand, the future of education is “about collaboration”.

Speaking to delegates at the annual South African Technology Network (SATN) international conference held in Durban last month, he said the 4IR will render the old university curricula obsolete.

Western Digital is the world’s largest hard drive manufacturer, with 44% market share and 65,000 employees around the world. It has offered a successful cooperative education programme involving 49 foreign universities and 72 local universities since 2009. According to Silapanad, the rate of return on investment of the programme is five to six. Over the past five years, the programme has seen 12 South African students take part in the programme.

Quoting Citigroup/World Bank figures, Silapanad said 72% of the workforce in Thailand is at risk of unemployment owing to automation. The figure is 67% for South Africa, 85% for Ethiopia, 77% for China and 69% for India. The OECD average is 57%.

He said 84% of enterprises believe investing in AI will lead to greater competitive advantage and global revenues from AI for enterprise applications were expected to grow from US$1.62 billion in 2009 to US$32 billion in 2026. Jobs requiring AI skills were increasing up to five fold, he said – all of which would need to change the way in which students were educated and force more collaborations between industry and educational institutions.

“It’s a new set of opportunities and I strongly believe Industry 4.0 [the Fourth Industrial Revolution] will be of benefit to all,” he said.


According to Silapanad, greater reliance on automation would, for most companies, mean more emphasis on retraining or re-skilling employees, and less emphasis on recruiting.

Surprisingly, about 70% to 80% of those skills would be in the form of so-called 'soft skills' – specifically: critical thinking, a growth mindset, agility and resilience – rather than 'hard' skills which are likely to be in the form of data science and analysis, data equipment automation, industrial intelligence systems and systems integration skills, he said.

“A growth mindset is important because the new AI environment is going to bring with it two new cultures: a culture of uncertainty; and a culture of seeking new opportunities,” he said. This would necessitate a shift from the “old smart” to “new smart” which will increasingly value qualities such as an open mind; the willingness to see mistakes as learning opportunities; a truth-seeking impulse; a desire to “improve” one’s views rather than defend them; a recognition that “not knowing” might be just as useful as “knowing”.

In terms of the new cultures, the team wins over the individual, transparency replaces secrecy, and the quality of ideas trumps the seniority and rank of those pitching them.

Collaboration and sharing were major characteristics of the new culture.

“If people are greedy, if they never share, and are selfish, they will be dying very soon. That’s why I sent a lot of messages today about soft skills, new cultures and the new smart,” he said.

Cooperative education

Silapanad said on joining Western Digital 11 years ago, he recognised the need for a model of work-based learning at tertiary educational level that would create a win-win outcome for all stakeholders.

Speaking to University World News on the sidelines of the conference, Silapanad said while work experience had been part of his programme as a third-year student in Thailand 35 years ago, he saw the need to introduce a new model that could produce a win-win outcome for all four parties – the university, the company, the student and the government.

“At the end of my 45-day apprenticeship period as a student, I received a very nice and complimentary letter from the company praising my ability. As a result of this letter, I also passed my university programme. But I knew in reality, I had actually achieved nothing during that work placement and the result was a lose-lose outcome,” he said.

On his arrival at Western Digital he approached a local university and together they launched a cooperative education programme which saw the students working for a longer period of four months or more on specific projects, during which time the students would receive a small salary or stipend.

Government support

Critical to the programme’s success, he said, was government support. According to Silapanad, the programme “stuttered” in the first three to five years until the government came on board to offer tax exemptions to industries as an incentive to join the programme.

Today, there are 30,000 students from over 100 universities in Thailand who go out annually to approximately 10,000 companies. Each student is assigned a mentor from the company and a project with specific expectations and they work under real work conditions.

It’s what Silapanad describes as a “share-winning outcome” where every one of the four parties secures a beneficial outcome. “Students get practical experience and a chance to be employed by the company; the university is able to get a sense of how to improve or adjust their curricula to suit industry needs; the company benefits because actual projects are completed; students bring new ideas and solutions to problems; and the government benefits from the system as a whole,” he said.

Could such a system work in South Africa?

“Yes, but the government has to act tough,” he said. “It needs to give some motivation or incentive to industry to participate.”

Silapanad said paying the students during their work experience means that industry partners have greater ownership over and investment in the project.

“If you don’t pay the students, the industry then does not care sufficiently about the outcomes and they leave the students in the corner because it doesn’t cost any money. Governments have to be strong, and universities and industry have to be strong too,” he said.

A similar programme has been introduced at Western Digital for local PhD students, lecturers and researchers who stay with the company for one or two years. Silapanad said the company was expanding the programme to include postgraduates and faculty from foreign countries as well.