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Our universities need to change for an as yet unimagined future

HERE is something that should scare and excite you in equal measure; in two years’ time, 27% of our economy will consist of new types of jobs that we can’t even imagine yet – not counting the ones whose extinction will be speeded up by COVID-19 and 4IR. But here’s the thing, our universities can’t…

HERE is something that should scare and excite you in equal measure; in two years’ time, 27%  of our economy will consist of new types of jobs that we can’t  even imagine yet – not counting the ones whose extinction will be speeded up by COVID-19 and 4IR.

But here’s the thing, our universities can’t imagine them either. The truth is that our education system is archaic, designed for an economy that has changed very little over the last 20 years and as a result is neither as diversified nor resilient as economies that were far inferior to South Africa’s over the same time frame.

The system is in gnarly dysfunction. The universities could change, and many want to, but it would take them between 10 – 15 years. South Africa doesn’t have that luxury – and the advent of COVID-19 has just shortened that timeframe considerably – but it does have a raft of TVET colleges across the country; 50 of them registered public institutions operating at 364 campuses across the country that could pivot to do this in anything from 12 to 24 months.

TVET stands for Technical and Vocational Education and Training. The colleges provide vocational, occupational and artisan education across an incredibly diverse scope; some TVET colleges offer more than 300 courses from NQF levels 1 – 8, while what we term higher education, i.e. the universities and universities of technology covers NQF levels 5 – 10.

The TVET system is funded to the tune of R8-billion a year and yet most colleges are defective and ineffective, but none of them need be.

We have rampant unemployment, with figures that are expected to skyrocket later this year after the impact of the COVID-19 Lockdown, but the greatest problem remains the NEET, that cohort of persons Not in Employment, Education and Training. In the last quarter of 2018 that amounted to 3.2-million people out of the 10.3-million in the 15-24 age bracket. They are not just unemployed; they are left unemployable in a world that is changing as we speak.

Modern learning is based on three facets: qualifications, credentialization and lifelong learning. Qualifications traditionally open the door to jobs, but what jobs? It once took 15 – 20 years for the technical skills you learnt to become obsolete, now that’s been cut to 2 – 5 years. We’re losing plenty of jobs in the formal sector through COVID-19 attrition on the one hand and the much-storied disruption of the fourth industrial revolution on the other. There’s also a high barrier to entry in terms of both cost and geography to universities and universities of technology.

Credentialization means the short, relevant courses you do during your working life, getting new skills to adapt to innovation, changes, disruption and new ways of working, while lifelong learning is something that has to be adopted by all of us if we are to remain relevant, and if our rate of learning is not to be outpaced by the rate of change around us. 

Legacy institutions are geared to only providing qualifications, not credentials and certainly not majoring in lifelong learning. People need to adapt fast, in months rather than years. They have to earn while they learn, they can’t afford to pay fees and take time off to study; but most of all people need to learn skills that are practical, that make them even more employable afterwards – and those skills have to be global.

TVETs provide us with a golden opportunity to address all of these issues quickly. It seems counter-intuitive at first blush, after all I’ve just told you they are dysfunctional, but if we were to take a leaf out of Switzerland’s book which uses its TVET institutions to great success, we could change this story. It’s not just Switzerland either, New Zealand, Russia, China and Finland all use their TVET systems to great effect – for the national interest

International best practice means we need to diversify the post school education and training model away from one that is mostly government funded and university centric to one that centres on businesses and industries, mobilises resources, sets quality assurance and closely aligns the outcomes to the actual needs of the economy.

We are no longer in a knowledge-based economy, the world has entered an innovation economy – this is the true impact of the fourth industrial revolution. The only way we can begin to keep pace is by continuous learning. As Tony Wagner, the senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute so pithily described it: “There is no longer a competitive advantage in simply knowing more than other people because Google knows everything. What the world cares about it is not how much you know, but what you can do with it”.

We need more than just the technical skills, we need to teach business owners, especially SME owners, both business and creative acumen to innovate. We need to graduate students who are prepared to go out and learn more through trial and error. We need to build the people who build the businesses that build Africa.

So how do we do this? We have to decolonise the education establishment, not just racially but intellectually; it’s not the western content of a university that’s outdated, it’s the western concept of a university that is past its sell-by date. We need to decolumnise campuses too from the grand colosseums to a vibrant, insightful, smart network of decentralised partners keen to research, experiment and celebrate fast marginal improvements that taken together build national capacity for an economy that needs skills that are radical and complex.

We do it by ramping up online and virtual learning, something that the pandemic has already forced upon us and we innovate without conscience, borrowing from the best, wilfully bypassing national institutions that stand in our way. Build them we must and will, but we can’t unhinge our economy further while we do.  Our qualifications don’t have to be South African, they can be international because knowledge has no nationality, it’s either fit for purpose or it has no purpose. And the purpose is to build our economy fast, and improve our people’s lives. We must borrow, beg, steal and adapt as we massify further education and unlock the latent talents of those locked in poverty. For it’s not wealth that gives you freedom, but skills.

In the end, if we get it right, we will outpace our teachers just as happened in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore. Far from being white elephants, our TVETs will be our lifeline to a new culture of lifelong learning, partners in corporate credentialization and providing qualifications that open doors from first graduation all the way through to retirement and beyond.

But first the low hanging fruits: halving the 5.7-million jobs currently at risk to 2.5-million by 2025. What have we got to lose?

  • Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, a leading global business school with campuses in Europe, Asia and Africa. It holds elite triple international accreditation; has the number 1 business school alumni network in the world for potential to network (Economist 2017); and is the number 1 African-accredited and campused business school in the world for executive education (FT 2018, 2020), as well as the number 1 MBA business school in South Africa as rated by corporate SA (PMR 2018, 2019).

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