South Africa has an exponential problem. CoViD-19 shone a spotlight on just how unprepared the country was. That problem requires an exponential solution.
So said Mr Sikhumbuzo Ngcobo (left), Public Sector Director responsible for Government and Education at Microsoft South Africa who offered two Microsoft up-skilling programmes as a potential solution – one of which is already in operation in the Eastern Cape.
He was addressing last week’s 2nd Universities SA Higher Education Conference that was jointly hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE).
Speaking to the World of Work Strategy Group breakaway sub-theme: Universities and the 4-IR Labour Market, Ngcobo said the topic “contributes to a conversation that is very close to the business that we, at Microsoft South Africa, have a big interest to invest in”. From a policy position, looking at the challenges facing the country, he said the mistake – as he sees it — is trying to convert the old rather than trying to build the new and hoping for a new result.
“CoViD-19 has shown us that we are not ready in any material sense.” Because of the absence of policy, many initiatives have had to be overlooked, he said. “From an economic position, the challenges we have create an opportunity that we need to capitalise on, but at scale. We need to prototype while we drive policy formulation.
“What do I mean by that? We need to focus on the universities — to form a digital community. But first, we need enabling infrastructure,” Mr Ngcobo said. There was now an opportunity to build an education platform for citizens in South Africa.
All universities, he added, have educational content that students and citizens can access for skills and capabilities training.
Ngcobo outlined two critical Microsoft programmes:
- Enterprise Skills Initiative, a global programme being rolled out in South Africa in partnership with the Eastern Cape Government and Walter Sisulu University (Mthatha). “The goal is to create scale to train youth and the unemployed to get them 4IR ready. We need to have Spectrum for the education sector. But what platforms do we have in place for our communities? When we talk emerging technologies and skilling on the back of the platform – platforms we are building – we are inviting industries to push their industry-specific training content onto these platforms. In that way, we are skilling at scale; we are owning the platform that is patented as the South African Education Platform.”
- The country cloud and Artificial Intelligence (AI): Microsoft is rolling out a big plan. “AI is becoming critical for the creation of efficiencies. It is the backbone, the engine, of our back and front offices. If we talk AI machine learning in-the-cloud platforms, we have the opportunity to look at government services. As universities, you can lead and look at what specific services government can take onto the digital platform and allow access to via the web, via SMSs, applications, or social media. Citizens are on digital platforms. We are following those citizens who are already utilising some of these digital platforms,” he said.
Ngcobo added that there are opportunities for universities that are already collaborating with communities to find solutions to service problems that those communities face. “We are creating a market by creating a platform that will look at solving problems; everything from driving licences, home affairs services, health records… This will help us energise the youth, to innovate where they are and use the university as a platform to drive that innovation.”
Funding needs venture capitalists
He said there is always talk about funding. “We have a lot of venture capitalists in South Africa. We should bring them on board as partners to avail resources to drive these innovations. What market are we creating for the skills we want to drive? These things are intertwined: the enterprise skilling initiative, the citizens-skilling initiative through the education platform. We have to create markets that will absorb them,” he said.
Regarding economic drivers, Mr Ngcobo said he wanted to use agriculture as an example since he described himself as a farmer. “How do we integrate the small farmers with the commercial farmers to get them into the same supply chain? How do we ensure that all the localised suppliers are able to get to this platform so they can start sourcing?
“The emerging technologies are helping us create a singular economy,” he said.
Citing companies that were established in the last ten years, that never existed before, he said they were born “on the back of venture capitalists, out of research and innovation”.
Universities, Ngcobo said, have a critical role to play in partnering with industry to drive scale. “The only way to make an impact is to ensure our initiatives are coordinated. This structure is the platform that should own some of these initiatives.”
He added: “Has CoViD-19 forced the closure of universities? Are we disrupting the calendar? Are we going to see debates between the unions and the department of education? How do we create a platform that will fit content whether we have more CoViD-19 waves or not?”
These were relevant questions that needed to be answered, he said, adding: “We need a platform that allows citizens to train and scale daily. Once that coordination and partnership has been established and utilised already available resources, I think we will take a step further towards driving the 4IR. We’re already talking about 5IR; the emerging technologies are going to the next level,” he concluded.
Aimed at providing a platform for thought leadership and debate, the conference – themed The Engaged University – was the largest of its kind in South Africa with over 140 participants (speakers and chairs) and almost 2000 delegates.
Following the deliberations on Universities and the 4IR Labour Market, USAf’s World of Work Strategy Group also presided over two other breakaway sessions that explored the topics: Universities and the New Technology Moment and Society and Entrepreneurship and Modern Technologies in the Labour Market – Nexus Between Theory and Practice, respectively. The WSG, alongside USAf’s four other strategy groups, conceptualised the agenda of this conference in line with the Groups’ priorities stipulated in USAf’s current five-year strategy.
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.