invest south africa higher education


The Future of African Education


Only by embracing a global mindset can South Africaís educational institutions remain relevant and position the country for growth during the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has arrived. Rapid developments in areas such as genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, machine learning, energy storage and biotechnology are reshaping industries worldwide.

This revolution in how we work and how business functions is impacting upon every sector in every country.  Rich nations will expect to enjoy improvements in ease of doing business and overall standard of living. However, for developing economies reliant on low-skilled labour the consequences could be devastating. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs study, a net loss of over 5 million jobs in 15 major developed and emerging economies is expected. The WEF study suggests that South Africa will be heavily impacted.  Less developed African economies could suffer even more.

“In the last 20 years, blue collar jobs have been wiped out, which is partly why you have political polarisation. Simultaneously, the next 30 years will wipe out 70% of white collar jobs in the world. What are we then going to do?” asks Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand.

“We need to rethink everything, starting with what the future jobs will be. From there, we can see how and what we can teach. We have to rethink the fulfilment of work and rethink skills.

“It is a revolution of sorts, and we will see the rise of leaders that will lead the charge and the change. South Africa especially has the right kind of political leaders to do this.

“It brings forward the question of how we create the right kind of leaders across universities and the corporate world.

“If you think about the fourth industrial revolution, it is essentially about high-knowledge workers, which is what we need to address. We have to bring current workers with their current skills into the fourth revolution, while simultaneously catching up with the second and third revolutions.”

Catching Up

A need to “catch up” on the past puts universities at a disadvantage when preparing for the changing dynamics of global business. The South African economy faces a constant unemployment crisis. At the same time, many industries struggle with the skills shortage. Academic leadership, therefore, works under immense pressure to solve immediate problems. A hangover from South Africa’s troubled history can also lead to an inward-looking mentality.

“A big part of the problem is that not enough people have the right mindset or a global idea of education. I believe that a lot of schools and its educators are still stuck in the isolation we were placed in during Apartheid. They do not realise that the world is changing at an incredibly fast pace” says Lieb Liebenberg, CEO of IT Schools Innovation.

“We are not thinking long-term, and instead only focus on the now. However, ‘now’ should include the basics of critical thinking. Education means that today’s children will have good quality lives in 2070. This movement of automation we are experiencing currently is going to take a lot of jobs away. I do not think that children are being properly prepared for that.”

Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, Vice Chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, also calls for a mindset shift in education. “We need to create a higher skilled society and level of entrepreneurs in order to really move forward and solve our issues,” says Dr van Jaarsveld

“For me, that is the heart of the matter. We simply do not have enough people in universities, colleges and in society, other than the industrial sector, with enough high-end skills to be entrepreneurial enough to allow our economy to grow.”

The University of the Future

South Africa’s education system is need of restructuring from top to bottom to ensure the country remains globally relevant. South African’s are a naturally resilient and innovative population. The private education sector has started to thrive in recent years (legendary local investor Jannie Mouton has identified it as the best investment opportunity in the country) while private vocational training institutes such as Ekurhuleni Artisans and Skills Training Centre (EastC) have emerged to bridge the gap between the needs of the private sector and the output of the education system.

The public sector and the public university system needs to embrace these developments. Business should also be encouraged to take a more hands-on role in addressing challenges in basic education. This should include finding a working model for businesses to sponsor or adopt struggling rural schools where students often study in appalling conditions. Above all, all stakeholders in South African society need to address three critical questions.  What does the future global economy look like? What does the future of work look like?  And what are the natural strengths of South Africa that can create over ten million meaningful jobs for the next generation?

Dr Peter Diamandis, Executive Chairman of the Silicon Valley-based Singularity University, defines the “University of the future” as providing education which is personalised, free, on-demand, virtualised and inspirational. Technology is expected to provide access to education without cost, just as the internet and search engines have made access to information free to anyone who needs it. Africans have already embraced technology to skip several rungs on the developmental ladder.  The rapid spread of mobile banking and payments is one example of a dramatic and immediate change to how people live and work on the continent. Education could change even more rapidly.

Universities have recently seen heated, and sometimes violent, student demonstrations against rising fees. If Dr Diamandis is correct and education will be significantly cheaper or even free in the future, there is no reason South Africa would be left behind in that movement. Therefore universities must embrace the commercialization of ideas. Innovative research and product development should become a priority and a reliance on student fees and government grants should be removed.

It is time for international business and educators to explore a new type of relationship with Africa. Dr Max Price, Vice-Chancellor the University of Cape Town, sees opportunity in commercial and research partnerships that address African challenges, saying “One big reason for collaboration is of course access to funding, especially for researchers and if you want to access the international market. A big draw for international partners is that South Africa has many of the raw materials that researchers may want to study. Population migration is a good example. South Africa has many people coming into the country, as well as many going out.

South African education now finds itself at a crossroads. A few key universities are building digital learning platforms, embracing international collaboration, and putting forward an ambitious vision of Africa’s place in the world. They can only thrive if they work hand-in-hand with government and business. The challenges of the fourth industrial revolution are real and will be felt globally. The opportunities, equally, are significant and have the potential to transform life across Africa. The most precious resource of the fourth industrial revolution is knowledge, not capital.  It is now a time for bold and decisive leadership in African education, and for a unified vision of an innovative, strong and inter-connected African economy.

Read full articles and extended interviews with Africa's top leaders

The Invest South Africa Digital Report is available for iPad and Android tablets: