BRICS Network University can boost 4IR hopes – Minister

In addition to the recent announcement that technical and vocational education and training would get a ZAR2.5 billion (US$176 million) boost to equip them with fourth industrial revolution (4IR) skills, Minister of Higher Education and Training Naledi Pandor said she would soon be asking the National Treasury for more funding – and set up a ministerial committee – to ensure that South Africa did not lag behind in the 4IR race.

Interviewed at the closing ceremony of the BRICS 2018 Future Skills Challenge, held at the Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand recently, Pandor told University World News that, in order to ensure 4IR success, cooperation among BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – was vital to improve skills, strengthen academic ties and enhance student mobility.

A sharing of knowledge, research and innovation between academics in BRICS countries could strengthen integration, she added. “If universities in BRICS collaborate successfully on research and teaching in student and staff exchanges, we can make a significant contribution to global knowledge.”

She said that the BRICS Network University was an education project underpinned by the 4IR, which had major implications for business and education.

BRICS Network University is a group of 60 higher education institutions from member countries – 12 from each of the five BRICS countries – established by BRICS education ministers to engage in educational and research initiatives across themes that include: university linkages and higher education mobility; technical and vocational education and training (TVET) exchanges; and sharing of education statistics and learning assessment experiences.

Crucial to introduce 4IR skills

“We’re in the age of the pervasive influence of emerging technologies and artificial intelligence, and need responsive skills and a development research focus and investment to benefit fully. Through its research partnerships, the BRICS Network University can help reduce the poverty, unemployment and inequality that characterise many countries in the developing world,” Pandor said.

It is crucial that South Africa introduce these 4IR skills as two-thirds of the children at primary school today are likely to end up working in jobs that are not in existence today.

While she praised universities for developing 4IR skills, Pandor said much still had to be done to equip the country’s TVET colleges with related infrastructure. Ensuring that schools, colleges and universities prepared adequately for the 4IR was a critical requirement, she said.

Pandor said she would appoint a ministerial committee to address 4IR concerns: “Its remit will be to assess what is being done at different universities in the country and then to advise as to what my department should do to put us on a good edge in terms of participation in the digital revolution.”

She added that it was high on her agenda to provide the infrastructure to bring colleges up to speed, so they could respond to the demands of new technology and contribute to employment creation and enterprise development in South Africa – but not all of her efforts would require funding, as she sought to draw on the existing experience of institutions in this area.

Technology introduced in schools

The minister added that the challenges were not insurmountable and she was impressed at the steps being taken to ensure that South Africans were joining the digital innovation race.

“The Gauteng Department of Education’s introduction of technology to all schools has been a really bold step. We should encourage more provinces to do so. An older initiative in the Western Cape has also had a positive impact. All our universities are doing more, boasting digital facilities in libraries, and wireless is being used widely; certainly, they’re ahead of colleges,” she said.

Pandor’s statements came in the wake of a recent statement by her second in command, Buti Manamela, the deputy minister of higher education and training, that subjects including coding and robotics welding would be introduced at schools and TVET colleges.

He said that it was necessary to prepare the youth for the future: “The collaboration of young people in skills development, innovation and entrepreneurship has the potential to provide solutions to many development challenges. The major fear of 4IR is that more than five million jobs will be substituted ... and that big companies are run by robots.”

Youth finding solutions to challenges

Commenting on the BRICS 2018 Future Skills Challenge, Pandor said it was a unique initiative, enabling cooperation among the youth, through BRICS, to find solutions to current challenges: “The focus on future skills differentiates this skills challenge from all other existing international skills challenges and competitions”.

Hundreds of young innovators and entrepreneurs participated in key challenges, while also exhibiting the latest in cutting-edge technology. The challenge was hosted by the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services SETA and the BRICS Business Council, in association with the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Pandor told University World News that she had noticed while visiting Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou in August that China was already equipping the youth with 4IR skills.

“What struck me about their offices was that it was run by young people. We, too, must create the spaces and let talent thrive. A strong part of it is letting people’s imagination drive them,” she said.

In her inspiring address at the challenge, which drew a standing ovation, Pandor said: “I hope that the work of the BRICS Business Council Skills Development Working Group and specifically the annual Future Skills Challenge will form one of the building blocks that will enable us to chip away at the obstacles to economic liberation for the masses of our people in the respective BRICS countries.”