The World of Work: requirements change for workers, students and universities

20-10-21 USAf 0 comment

Deep concerns were raised about the ability and capability of universities to navigate the changes that will require them to be agile in this new technology moment that we are in.

This was said by Professor Ahmed Bawa (left), CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf) during strategy groups’ report-back session of USAf’s 2nd Higher Education Conference that concluded recently. On the last day of this event, Professor Bawa stood in for Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg and Acting Chair of USAf’s World of Work Strategy Group (WSG). He summarised to the plenary, what had transpired in the three breakaway sessions of this Group within the conference.

Professor Bawa introduced the three major areas of discussion within the WSG segment of the conference, saying some deliberations had related to universities directly whereas others had pertained to the nature of work and the requirements of society.

  1. Technological Disruption – The National Agenda on 4IR (Labour Market Analytical Review; Megatrends in the PSET System)
  2. Universities and the New Technology Moment and Society
  3. Entrepreneurship and Modern Technologies in the Labour Market – Nexus Between Theory and Practice.

He said universities would have to engage in a process of re-imagining the student in the context of the changes taking place, which had begun to manifest during CoViD-19. He told the delegates: “This might require re-imagining and reshaping universities’ present form,” he intimated.

Using technology for collaboration

Universities, he added, must use technology for collaboration. “The pandemic has taught us that there should be very little excuse for universities not to collaborate with each other and with other partners and stakeholders. There are deep concerns that higher education continues to be low-tech, even in the way we use technology in the context of CoViD-19. It therefore faces strong risks from these major technological advances that are taking place.”

He cited the risk of falling behind global programme offerings and qualifications: “I’m sure you’ve heard about The University of The People, based in the United States, that is offering programmes at very low cost to students across the world. That was a concern raised in the strategy group.

“Universities should become hubs of innovation if they are to focus on the employability of students. This means that our graduates, as they enter the labour market, will be required to be innovative and creative. Universities have to embody these characteristics if they are to produce graduates who have them.”

The USAf CEO said there was a clear recognition that the value of the university lies in knowledge creation. He underlined the need to collaborate in engagement in pursuit of knowledge creation for the common good. At the heart of that, yet again, was the idea of using technology as the co-creator of knowledge. “A different type of higher education leadership needs to emerge. Leadership needs to confront and address the grand challenges we face in this new technology moment.”

University as an employer to change

Given on-going technological changes, the future of the university as an employer is likely to change, Professor Bawa said. This relates to the gig economy where academics will increasingly serve as consultants, selling their expertise to multiple universities. The WSG had explored the implications of this for quality management.

“Academics might increasingly work for more than one knowledge-intensive institution. This has implications for the future of the university.” He said the pandemic had surfaced the technological challenges of many students around learning devices; data, resources to travel, but also a lack of related skills, something that has enormous implications. Bawa said that if students are not sufficiently technologically skilled when they come to university, that has implications on their participation in the universities that are intensifying use of technology more vibrantly.

Certification will broaden

With the increasing number of role players, for example, training providers like Google and IBM, certification will no longer be largely in the hands of the universities. “There will be other avenues for certification and skills development. This means that universities must either keep up with this or find a niche that fits for them. Alongside this, there’s the notion that universities have to become geared for lifelong learning and ensure that they can cater for broader audiences. They will have to address the needs of socially mature students and to build capacity to contribute to lifelong learning.”

There was a general view in the WSG, that the use of technologies forced by CoViD-19 was not anticipated, and that society and the universities were caught unaware. It was also acknowledged that quick uptake was accelerated. Professor Bawa said although it was not possible to quantify the technological change on jobs, “it is clear that it is going to be extensive, with the impact being felt particularly by people in the middle routine jobs which can, and will be, automated.”

Universities need to prepare students for the future

He said that was already happening in the banking sector. However, what will remain critical are soft skills, and technical skills. With machines taking over certain human functions, universities will have to play a role in helping students and non-students rethink their own role in society. “This move towards a post-human society is something we have not even begun to engage with. Massive amounts of data are enabling machine learning and this is going to have huge impact on the nature of our society, and, in particular, around the use of AI, deep learning and the impact of those on various aspects of human existence.

“For example, to what extent will this kind of machine learning contribute towards changing the way in which human health is considered? Or how insurance is dealt with? Changes that are occurring will force the need for flexibility with skilled individuals having strong bargaining power. This raises the question: who controls the power relations?

In other words, as technology begins to take force, we are going to see the need for us to revisit the way in which power relations are distributed,” Professor Bawa said. Technology can cut out the middleman, and therefore jobs in that space will be lost. His example was what happened in the commercial music industry space where many artists are now distributing their own music. “People fear being displaced, but they will inevitably be forced to change – which may have psycho-social implications.

“There’s a big question being raised: what are the individual talents that must be defined by universities as these technologies take hold? It’s really about linking things – what are the implications for the curriculum as we head into this new era?” Looking at entrepreneurship and the modern technologies in the labour market, Professor Bawa said the big question was how to prepare students for an unpredictable future.

Creating curiosity-driven students

“We have to build the capacity of students to imagine and to be curiosity driven. It’s not enough for us just to produce people for the labour market but to ensure that they can build their capacity and their ability to navigate this new world after they graduate.

“There needs to be a much closer interaction between the higher education providers and the employers, and – because of the rapidity of the change – there needs to be real time curriculum redesign. This can only really happen in the engagement between higher education and employers. There is going to be an increasing virtualisation of teaching and training and this will have to be co-created as far as possible with the external environment.”

He said learning would increasingly become part of many environments. “In other words, the issue of lifelong learning becomes increasingly relevant and there will be a growing need for instructional designers. Training increasingly makes use of simulation, Chatbox, augmented and virtual reality and animation, and this will have huge implications for teaching programmes.


“In other words, there will be a growing market for individuals who can produce these kinds of technology-based learning programmes.”

UK research has shown that there are increasing numbers of students who wish to start their own businesses, even while they are at university. “And they want to make a social difference; they want to be agents of change and they have personal drive. That kind of study has not been done here in SA yet, but this is what has been found in the UK.”

He noted that there is clearly a change in hiring decisions. “Just to give you an example, very often what is asked of individuals now, when they apply for jobs, is not what qualifications do you have, but what can you do and what have you done? So, the issue is around how our curricula and training programmes fit with that kind of new employment environment.”

The WSG determined that entrepreneurship is a combination of art and skill involving modelling, framing and performing and that speaks to the purposefulness of bringing together different domains into our programmes. “Here’s an important point: employment will be lost in some sectors; in others it will be retained and there will be growth in other sectors. So, there is going to be a shift in the way the labour market is made up. “Research has provided evidence that there will be “winners” and “losers” with demand, for example, for knowledge workers and creative thinkers and professional managers. Mid-level routine jobs are likely be replaced by machines. Lower-end jobs may largely survive as they are difficult to replace with machines.

“So, we have to pay attention to what is likely to happen in the labour market and to then understand what the role of universities is, within that,” Professor Bawa said.

Wrapping up, he said: “We will see new perspectives on work and technology. There will be shorter working weeks which could improve the quality of life; provide adults more time with family and children. The human aspect of these technology changes should not be ignored.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.