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SA: Blade Nzimande: Address by Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, on the occasion of the Tshwane University of Technology Council Dialogue Themed “Positioning TUT in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and future of work” he

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SA: Blade Nzimande: Address by Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, on the occasion of the Tshwane University of Technology Council Dialogue Themed “Positioning TUT in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and future of work” he

Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande

23rd October 2020

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Embassy of Ireland, Ambassador Gilsenan;
Tshwane University of Technology Council Chairperson, Mr T Manyoni;
Deputy Chairperson of Council, Mr Thabang Chiloane, who is also the programme Director for today;
Department of Science and Innovation, Director General, Dr Phil Mjwara
TUT Vice- Chancellor & Principal & Chairperson chairperson of the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa, Prof Laurens van Staden;
Acting Executive Dean of Humanities, Prof Herbert Maserumule; Executive Director: Institutional Effectiveness & CIO, Dr D Naidoo; Deputy Director: LEAD & Research, Dr T Herbst;
All Executives and Deans from TUT and other universities present; Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Officials present; Members of the media;
Ladies and gentlemen; Good morning Colleagues

Thank you for the invitation to join the TUT Council Dialogue on the theme ‘Positioning TUT in the context of the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the Future of Work”. I wish to commend Council, as the highest decision- making body in the University, in providing thought leadership on a crucial question facing not only our universities, but our entire society.

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This Council dialogue is taking place at a time of immense global and local upheaval, uncertainty and turbulence. In recent months, we have seen the COVID-19
pandemic causing major shockwaves across the planet, bringing immense distress on the human population, particularly its most vulnerable and marginalised social strata. The pandemic has acted as an accelerant on the back of previously existing levels of social inequality that have marked South Africa as one of the world’s most unequal societies.

Universities of technology must also locate themselves and their roles in a world that is currently characterized by a fourfold crisis:

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  • Covid 19
  • Deepening economic crisis
  • Multiple crises of challenges of socio-economic sustainability for families, households and communities
  • Climate Change

The inequality challenge is also further affected by unprecedented technological changes that have been taking place across the world over the last few decades. These transformations are today commonly described as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
 
1. The Challenges of the 4IR:

The concept of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR) was first coined by Klaus Schwab and his colleagues at the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos and gained great popularity in global business circles and technology writers in recent years.

Essentially, it describes a ‘fourth’ generation of economic and industrial transformations taking place in the world economy, driven by major advances in digital and computing technologies, material and biological sciences.

The ‘blurring’ of the boundaries between the digital, physical and biological world provides, at least potentially, the source of major transformations in the production of goods and services, from energy, transportation, food production to construction, leisure, healthcare and, all manner of things.

The force of the transformations are beginning to disrupt longstanding traditions and conventions of work as well as the relationship between humans and machines, particularly insofar as new innovations such as artificial intelligence, machine and deep learning, robotics and automation are concerned.

The collective effect of these convergent technologies has caused major ‘disruptions’ to both capital and labour, the nature of work, and with this, careers and our assumptions about what forms of education and training must prepare students for a changing world of work. I believe the Council dialogue is centrally concerned with
this issue.

The WEF has developed a set of tipping points at which the technologies of the 4IR will become widespread enough to create massive societal change. These tipping points include the proliferation of 4IR technologies to levels where they make significant impacts on our lives and require shifts in employment and education. A survey of 800 high-tech experts and executives determined a series of dates by which tipping points would be reached.

Examples include implantable cell phones by 2025, 80% of people with a digital presence by 2023, 10% of reading glasses connected to the internet by 2023, 10% of people wearing internet-connected clothes by 2022, 90% of the world population with access to the internet by 2024, 90% of the population using smartphones by 2023, 1 trillion sensors connected to the internet by 2022, over 50% of internet traffic directed to homes and appliances by 2024, and driverless cars comprising10% of all cars in the United States by 2026. Many other predictions suggest extensive integration of AI in the 4IR workforce, such as AI members of corporate boards of
directors, AI auditors and robotic pharmacists, proliferation of bitcoin in the economy, 3D printed cars by 2022, and transplants of 3D printed organs such as livers by 2024.

At the same data and its mining are increasingly becoming important parts in the lives of all institutions and workplaces. This calls for increased training and production of data managers and data scientists, such that research indicates that
 
there is an increasing shift in many corporate companies away from employing chief information officers (CIOs) to engaging a relatively new occupation and profession, that of Chief Data Officers (CDOs).

There is of course nothing inevitable or linear about these possible technological applications. Neither should we assume that they will be necessarily adopted for the greater human good. After all, technologies are essentially neutral tools used by humans to alter their environments either for the good of humanity or for destructive or exploitative ends. This choice has to be made consciously.

The precise impacts of 4IR technologies on society and the planet are still unknown but the fact that they will bring disruptive and radical changes -both positive and negative - seems all but certain.

The need for our Post-School Education and Training (PSET) system to effectively respond to its challenges is vital as society traditionally looks at universities in particular as pathfinders to the future.

Universities have to critically look at the underlying problems and challenges as well as new opportunities to advance human progress in the pursuit of a more equal world. We look upon our universities to examine the uncritical claims and assumptions made about the promises of the 4IR so that policy-makers and the public can grapple with its contradictory consequences.

It would also be important for this dialogue to reflect upon the opportunities created by the new emergent landscape of higher education, science and innovation (HESI) brought about by the President’s decision to place the Departments of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and that of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) under one Ministry. For instance I have been recently struck by how this new government landscape has now brought under one umbrella five very crucial funding agencies in driving the new HESI landscape and our economic growth and development agenda:

  • The National Research Foundation
  • The National Student Financial Aid Scheme
  • The Sector Education and Training Authorities
  • The Technology Innovation Agency
  • The National Skills Fund

These provide us with a huge opportunities to fund our objectives and the HESI system in a synergies day manner, thus significantly boosting our role and place in the 4IR space.

2. Fourth Industrial Revolution and Future Curricula:

Substantial and constant changes to the curricula of universities are going to be required to allow for students to develop capacities to deal with emergent and unknown challenges of the future. Clearly, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematical (STEM) subjects have a crucial role to play in equipping students in rapidly fields such as genomics, data science, AI, robotics and nanomaterials.
 
An evolving 4IR STEM curriculum would have to reconsider the rigid disciplinary boundary framing of traditional subjects such as biology, chemistry and physics— given the integrative role of digital technologies in relation to each and their intersections in the real world.

Within biology, for example, new approaches might include training within introductory courses to discuss emerging areas such as synthetic biology and molecular design.

New physics curricula emphasizing the 4IR collaborative skills should also
be developed, based on projects where students design and build original musical instruments, cryptographic gadgets and other inventions collaboratively.

Additional educational responses to 4IR might require a restructuring of institutions to provide new programs in emerging interdisciplinary fields to more efficiently provide trained workers to help advance and accelerate trans-boundary fields such as biotechnology, nanotechnology materials and AI.

Any educational plan for the 4IR must accelerate the development of open-source hybrid online and self-learning platforms of instruction, and wide array of asynchronous educational resources.

Blended instruction and online courses should enable more efficient learning environments that can adapt to a potentially infinite range of types of students coming from a diversity of backgrounds.

Any effective 4IR education strategy must foreground the human condition: the ways in which new technologies and shifting economic power impact people of equality, human freedom and social solidarity. It is therefore crucial that the Humanities and Social Sciences must be reinvented to play a crucial role in shaping the discourses of science and technology to speak to the cultural, social, political and economic issues.

How do we combat social alienation in a world dominated by machines? How do we ensure algorithms do not engender new forms of racism and class prejudice? How do we harness the powers of the new technologies to overcome the historical questions of oppression and exploitation?

The 4IR puts a premium on adaptability and in self-directed learning and thinking. Lifelong learning will be key as the shelf life of any skill in the present-day environment has become increasingly short, requiring future workers to continuously update their skills and teach themselves about new technologies and new industries that may not have existed while they were being trained for their initial degrees.

3. The Role of Universities of Technology: TUT

The changing nature of work—which favours more flexible and shorter- term assignments— has been widely cited as a key challenge of the 4IR, and indeed, for a future education system. It is clear that the rapid technological changes will, and
 
are going to cause, major job destruction and displacement in many sections of our economy, most recently, in the banking and services sectors. At the same time, new forms of work and careers are beginning to emerge.

Universities of Technology (UoT’s) such as TUT have a critical role to play in promoting the knowledge and skills required to facilitate the critical transitions which South Africa has to make in the face of the 4IR.

UoT’s provide essential professional, technological and applied programmes to enable us to bridge the gap between the world of learning and the world of work. In the context of the 4IR challenges, UoT’s must not stray from their critical mission.

We cannot have our UoT’s embark on ‘mission drift’ away from their core mission and wanting to become traditional, academic universities. This would be fatal to our vision of a differentiated higher education and training system, as envisaged in the White Paper on PSET of 2017.

Work-integrated learning, learnerships and similar strategies enabling our students to integrate theoretical training and practical, industry-knowledge and experience, is
absolutely important to retain and indeed expand. This is particularly important in the context of the challenges South Africa is now facing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We therefore need a post school education and training system that is skills centred, innovation led and entrepreneurship driven.

Recently, as you know, President CM Ramaphosa announced Government’s commitment to a national Economic Recovery and Reconstruction Plan, a major set of initiatives to catalyse our country out of the severe economic crisis. The economic recovery and reconstruction plan will mobilize significant investments in infrastructure, energy, manufacturing and food production aimed at boosting job creation and inclusive and sustainable growth.

The interventions led by our President comes against the background of the contradictory pull between rapid technological advancements on the one hand, and the destructive impacts the three major structural challenges facing a country like South Africa - poverty, inequality and unemployment, on the other hand.

Unless our strategies are well planned and implemented, technological advances will not on their own automatically address these challenges. Covid 19 has further exacerbated these challenges. This is where you must firmly locate your challenges as universities of technology generally and TUT in particular.

It is for these reasons also that our UoTs must also aim to become anchor institutions in the development of the localities in which they are embedded.

We see the role of the PSET sector, including Universities of Technology such as TUT, as critical enablers of its success. Innovation and skills development are crucial
 
to provide the catalysts for uptake of new job opportunities, to create new products and services, and to grow critical sectors of our economy.

We will require our PSET institutions to work much more collaboratively than in previous times, specifically to construct partnerships between Universities, TVET Colleges, industry and local communities around key economic sectors.

We see the District Development Model (DDM) as an ideal geographical set of spaces around which to construct workable partnerships between these institutions collaborating together in solving development challenges at a local level – for example, water management, food production, renewable energy for low-cost housing, and so forth.

I would like to urge Tshwane University of Technology Council to create the conditions in which your students can flourish and experiment in the new knowledge and skills opportunities presented by the 4IR. The university must be a centre of new experimentation for the future, but this must be grounded in the commitment to create an equal society.

I would also like our UoTs, universities and specifically TUT, to also engage with three studies that have been undertaken by my two departments in the last couple of years, that have now been completed.

The first one is the work, conclusions and recommendations of the Ministerial Task Team on the impact of the 4IR on post school education and training. The second study is that of the review of the entire Higher Education, Science and Technology Institutional Landscape (HESTIL). The purpose of this investigation was to, amongst others, assess the efficacy and adequacy of our institutions in responding to our national development priorities as well as the higher education and our national system of innovation.

The third study is that on the factors inhibiting the early identification, development and support for increasing the production of black and women South African academics in our higher education system. Whilst our higher education and the science, innovation and technology (STI) systems are proud of being one of the most respected globally and on our continent, with significant participation of, and interactions with, foreign academics and researchers, we nevertheless still need to attract more South Africans into the academic, research and scientific space.

It is also against this background that our UoTs and South African academia generally must not just effectively respond to the 4IR developments as recipients, but must also be active innovators in themselves. In other words, our UoTs must
become Centres of innovation, without abandoning, but instead building upon their training methodology, that of integrating theory and work-based learning.

In fact the era of new technological advances will require more and not less, work integrated learning as a method of producing the skills and knowledge we require. Your necessary focus on the 4IR must not be another mission drift, but must firmly support, strengthen and make more relevant your core mission.
 
With these remarks, I wish you a successful dialogue and looking forward to engaging with the results of today’s deliberations.

I thank you

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