Future proofing education


The e-commerce visionary who founded one of China’s most successful technology companies would probably not find a job there today. Billionnaire entrepreneur Jack Ma says that the initial screening for Alibaba would most likely screen him out because he lacks the qualifications. That’s because the memory and calculation functions of the industrial era are now being performed much better by machines. Now the 55-year-old former English teacher is planning philanthropical work so that the next generation is better prepared for the 4IR eco-system fast taking root worldwide.

For Ma, the solution is greater independent thinking. “We (have to) teach our kids how to be innovative, constructive and creative so they can survive in the AI (artificial intelligence) period. I want to do more things about that,” he was quoted saying by CNBC.

Where does South Africa stand in light of this statement? How well equipped are the country’s educational institutions to deliver the kind of independent thinking that Ma believes essential for any future professional capacity?

Changes are certainly afoot in the educational landscape, with a combination of policy pronouncements and independent initiatives that promise to move things in the right direction.

Skills revolution

One million new jobs by 2030—that’s the commitment of the Government’s 4IR Commission’s pilot skills development programme recently launched by the Ministry of Communications and Digital Technologies in partnership with MICT SETA.

Appointed to address the skills gaps to future proof SA’s economy and reduce youth unemployment brought about by technological disruption and structural inequalities, the 4IR commission has set an initial goal for the pilot project to train and equip 1 000 unemployed youth.

The 4IR ICT skills they gain—-Data Science, Digital Content Production, Cyber Security, Cloud Computing, Drone Piloting, 3D Printing and Software Development—are expected to unlock learnerships, employment and new businesses. Readiness programmes and entrepreneurship skills are also on the menu.

The programme will benefit from additional partnerships with the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Boston City Campus, Microsoft South Africa and technology company FIRtech.

“The fourth industrial revolution has changed the way we work and interact with each other. The soft skills of working with teams and service orientation are critical success factors and we plan to impart these skills during our work readiness programmes,” FIRtech CEO, Ugan Maistry said in a media release.

Contextualising policy

The 4IR Commission pilot programme’s endeavour to address the skills deficit wrought by structural constraints is line with current analysis of skills development policy. For economic policy researchers and investment strategist Sifiso Skenjana, founder and financial economist at AFRA Consultants, educational skills development must be contextualised with regard to the needs of the economy while taking structural constraints into account.

In an article published by News24, Skenjana wrote: “For example, such vocational skills may be more relevant in construction than they may be in financial services.

“So taking into account that construction has had four consecutive quarters of negative growth having shed more than 150 000 jobs in the first quarter of this year, while business services experience quarters of growth, it holds true that a vocational programme geared towards getting more welders (for e.g.) may not necessarily be as skills acquisitive as it is in Germany.

“The argument I make here does not suggest that vocational training has no value for the South African economy rather that we alongside policy makers, unions and business ought to solve first how we can tailor such programmes to our economy and its needs.

“In its current format, the draft framework fails to address the weaknesses in our education system and is unlikely to solve the unemployment and skills issue facing the economy either.”

Back to basics

Contextualisation was also a driving concern of the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) decision to formalise grade nine as an exit point of schooling.

Announced by Minister Angie Motshekga at the recent South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU), 9th National Congress, the plan has come under fire from vociferous critics—but the department claims to be misunderstood.

For the Democratic Alliance opposition party, the “disastrous” plan can only exacerbate the suffering of the poor and jeopardise the future of South Africa.

In a statement, DA MP Nomsa Marchesi said: ”The plan is akin to dusting off Hendrik Verwoerd’s education policy, which prescribed that black youth should only receive the kind of education that prepared them for low-skilled and low-paying jobs.”

In response, the DBE said that it was a misconception by the public that the proposed grade 9 certificates would signal the end of pupils’ schooling journeys.

Briefing Parliament’s education portfolio committee, the DBE said; “Contrary to media reports that learners would finish school in grade 9, the General Education Certificate (GEC) is not an exit certificate. The GEC and GOC (General Occupational Certificate), will enable learners to elect various pathways and in fact continue with their education at different institutions, where they will be exposed to skills training in available trades,” said the department as it briefed parliament’s education portfolio committee recently.

According to Minister Angie Motshekga, the introduction of these certificates is in line with international best practice and is aimed at creating more opportunities for learners, in the context of South Africa’s economic needs and structural constraints.

The certificates open up academic, technical vocational and technical occupational pathways in the further education and training (FET) band from grades 10 to 12, both at schools and at TVET colleges.

“The proposal of the GEC and three-stream model is not new. The sector is now moving towards implementation, as this will not only fundamentally or radically change the education and training landscape, but will contribute immensely to the skills revolution desperately needed by the country,” she said.

Deputy minister Dr Reginah Mhaule commented, “currently, there is a high dropout rate before grade 12, peaking in grades 10 and 11 (15.2% in 2012). Approximately a third of young people aged 15-24 (3.4-million) are not in employment, education or training (NEET) and 2-million of whom have not finished grade 12.”

Opportunities are expected to open up in the aviation and maritime industries, among others.

According to a DBE statement: “The department has worked closely with industries, from aviation to maritime, to develop the curriculum for these subjects that will assist learners to enter the job markets that lack skilled workers to service these industries and formalise the work that has been done. This is with the purpose of ensuring that the courses offered will be relevant and add value to industry.

“South Africa is refocusing the curriculum towards a competence based approach, integrating the 21st century skills and competencies across the subjects and introducing new subjects and programmes that are responsive to the demands of the changing world.

”These include coding and robotics, marine sciences, hydro/aquaponics, aviation sciences, design across the curriculum, mathematics and science, as well as aviation studies.

”It is envisaged that these will create interest among young people and encourage them to stay in school. The department is working closely with industry in this regard.”

Ethical deficit

One skills gap that has not been targeted is perhaps the most important one of all—that of ethics. From Steinhoff to Eskom, the narratives of failure that have loomed so large in South Africa for so many years all have one thing in common—a marked ethical deficit on the part of some highly placed decision-makers.

For Athol Williams, senior lecturer in corporate responsibility and ethical leadership at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Graduate School of Business (GSB), it is time, “to infuse ethics into our curricula such that ethical considerations influence our thinking and decision-making across the board”.

Writing for UCT News, Williams said that few South African schools and universities offer ethics or values-based courses of any description. An exception is Read to Rise, a youth literacy non-profit chaired by Williams, “which infuses its reading-promotion programmes in schools with content that fosters respect, compassion, courage and friendship”.

“Public administration and business schools at universities, in particular, need a deep rethink of ethical content. Most schools don’t offer dedicated courses on ethical decision-making, which is a major oversight. But they need to go even further, to critically evaluating the decision frameworks and methodologies that are taught to public and business leaders—these often place no value on ethical considerations, favouring instead old, neoclassical cost-benefit analyses.

“For too long we have had the disease of immoral behaviour reach into every facet of our society and our lives.

“We need a deliberate effort to introduce students to the dilemmas they are sure to face, to challenge their intuitions and to offer tools that enable them to make decisions that advance justice, not only economic growth.” 

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Issue 58