Having been around for roughly 900 years, universities have gone through many structural changes, conflict, destruction, rebirth and reconstruction. And they have always managed to survive or to adapt to new realities, Prof Manoel Bittencourt, extraordinary professor at UP, specialising in economic growth and development macroeconomics, points out. This said, these days universities have strong competitors such as the big tech companies, which also do R&D. “Competition, however, is usually a good thing and going forward, universities will have to adapt yet again,” he stresses.
Holding a PhD in Economics from Bristol University, among many other academic qualifications, Prof Bittencourt served as lecturer in Economics at the University of Cape Town (2007 – 2009), senior lecturer in Economics (2009 – 2012) and associate professor of Economics at UP (2013 – 2018), professor of Economics at the University of the Witwatersrand (2018 – 2020). Outside academia, he is a keen runner and swimmer and particularly interested in all matters football.
Below, read more about his work as extraordinary professor at UP, his thoughts on the future of and challenges facing tertiary education and the big research questions in his subject field.
Q: What does your position as extraordinary professor at EMS entail?
A: It entails doing the usual academic work, that is to say, teaching, research, supervision and even academic administration. It also entails representing the University at different spheres: I sit in external boards, I am associate editor of two international journals, I review for the National Research Foundation and for a number of universities and journals. Above all, it entails knowledge transfer and dissemination.
Q: What are the most rewarding aspects of this position?
A: Being an economics professor in South Africa, a developing country that has gotten things wrong so many times in the past, is fundamentally important because we can shape the future of this country. By passing our experience (and unbiased) knowledge to the new generation, we can, at least, hope that the (policy) mistakes of the past will not happen again.
Specifically, we can expect our students to advise those in power so that better and innovative economic policies are implemented and welfare is improved. In all, by teaching our students to look at the data, to make sense of the data by using economics’ first principles and to design innovative policies, we will all gain. I feel that my job has been done when I see former students influencing policy for the better.
Q: What is your field of specialisation?
A: My field is economic growth and development macroeconomics.
Q: How do you see the future of tertiary education, given both the global impact of COVID-19 and ongoing technological advancements?
A: Universities are very old institutions; they have been around for roughly 900 years. They have been through many structural changes, conflict, destruction, rebirth, reconstruction, you name it. And they have always managed to survive, or to adapt to new realities.
Universities are also places where new ideas and new technologies are created, and ideas and technologies are the determinants of growth, development and ultimately societal change. In all, universities and technological change have always moved together, and they will continue doing so in the future. And it is truly remarkable to what extent universities and technologies have been adapting since March 2020, and this trend will continue for a long time to come. This is the ultimate reason for universities to exist.
Q: Which specific skills – as opposed to mastering the subject matter to obtain a degree – do you believe will be in high demand in the future world of work and to what extent will universities be able to equip students with these skills?
A: Technological skills, based on human capital, have been in high demand for quite some time. Specifically, people will have to operate soft technologies, for example, to understand artificial intelligence (AI). And to understand AI people will have to understand expected utility, Bayes' theorem, neural nets, decision theory, maths, you name it. The future is soft, and people will increasingly have to adapt to soft technologies and all that they entail in terms of human capital formation.
Q: Going forward, where would you rank the need for research in tertiary education?
A: I rank research in universities as a top priority, all over the world. If people were not entirely sure about that, I hope the current pandemic has shown the importance of observation, data, first principles and analysis. And not only research per se, but dissemination of research as well.
Yet again, 2020 has shown us what and how universities do science and the importance of it. But universities now have strong competitors; the big tech companies also do R&D. And competition is usually a good thing. Universities will have to adapt yet again. And for the latter to happen, South African universities must continue the trend of getting closer and closer to the technological frontier.
Q: In your opinion, what are the big research questions in your subject field that need to be investigated?
A: Automation and AI, and their effects on employment and on the importance of skills; state capacity in dealing with crisis, such as environment and health; globalisation and political polarisation, like the ransacking of the Capitol and all that it represents for democracy (and how democracy affects economic activity); fiscal austerity and the rise of fascism again; the cultural change affecting developing countries, specifically in Africa, and how that will affect particular economic outcomes, such as fertility rates and educational mobility.
Q: Your advice to students who are considering post-graduate university education in the next decade or two?
A: Economics is an exciting field, and economics is not only the usual fiscal and monetary policies stuff. Economics is so rich that some of the AI concepts are based on economics. And AI is already in our pockets. But, in fact, by studying any subject that is scientifically based, say, observation, hypothesis, prediction, test, results, revision, start again, the new generation will be in great shape for the challenges of the future, which are already happening in the present.