SA economy requires 4IR research-intensive boost

Posted on August 05, 2019

In the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), universities worldwide are expected to be central actors of scientific, social and technological change in the drive for innovation and economic growth. It is against this background that countries are enhancing their international competitiveness by strengthening their research-intensive universities. The strategy varies from allocating additional research resources to universities to creating centres of excellence.

In South Africa there needs to be far more commitment and policy certainty regarding the research mandate of our universities in national development. It is important for the state to properly support research and this should be extended beyond our handful of research-intensive universities, as no university can excel in all domains. Universities that are not considered research-intensive overall but have proven strengths in particular research niches also need to be given research support to enable them to excel.

It is indeed not a choice because if a 4IR-targeted research boost is not forthcoming, future-focused programmes will not be forthcoming. This, in turn, will mean increasing numbers of students are inappropriately educated for the 4IR – compounded by the massification imperative in our universities – resulting in the country being faced with a growing graduate population that cannot find work.

The same applies throughout Africa. Peter Darvas, a Senior Economist in the Education Global Practice of the World Bank, reported in 2017 that enrolments in tertiary education in Sub-Saharan Africa had grown from 400 000 in 1970 to about 7.2 million in 2013. This growth has been accompanied by diversification of institutional types, especially the proliferation of private universities. However, while private universities have begun to venture into science programmes, most of them mainly specialise in business and management programmes. This has resulted in expanded growth that is not adequately addressing the 4IR skills challenge.

Transdisciplinary research between the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and the humanities is critical for navigating the 4IR. This is manifested by the STEAM movement (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) at universities globally to match the growing demand for arts and humanities skills in STEM fields with the advent of disruptive technologies such as 3D printing and robotics.

Based on this, Professor Joseph Aoun, President of Northeastern University in Boston, US, in his 2017 book Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence lays out the framework for a new discipline and research field – humanics – which prepares students to compete in a labour market in which smart machines work alongside human professionals. He identifies the following three graduate literacies as vital for navigating the 4IR: data literacy, technological literacy, and human literacy.

Students require data literacy to make sense of big data and information flowing from devices; technological literacy to know how their machines work and navigate disruptive technologies; and human literacy explored through the humanities as to how to function optimally as human beings. With the automation of work, Artificial Intelligence (AI) experts have observed that it is that which makes us human – our emotional intelligence and creativity – that is in demand in the transition to automation. As Aoun writes: “As machines continue to surpass their old boundaries, human beings must also continue to hone their mental capacities, skills, and technological knowledge.”

In response, universities worldwide are establishing 4IR-focused institutes and campuses with inter- and transdisciplinary academic and research programmes. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is planning a new US$1 billion Quest for Intelligence college of computing, which will combine AI, machine learning and data science and bring together researchers from cognitive science, neuroscience and computer science.

As one of South Africa’s research-intensive universities, the University of Pretoria (UP) launched the Future Africa Campus in March this year as a hub for national and international transdisciplinary research networks to maximise 4IR innovation and address the ‘wicked challenges’ our continent and world are facing.

In 2018 UP launched Engineering 4.0 as a hub not only for Smart Cities and Transport, but also to link its vast resources in technology and data sciences to other faculties via the Future Africa Campus. These initiatives are stimulating the convergence of research and expertise – from agriculture to AI, autonomous vehicles, big data, cloud computing, logistics modelling, synthetic biology and bioprospecting, to name a few.

We’re excited by the novel research our researchers are producing. An example is UP biochemist Dr Rethabile Tekane who is researching biochemistry education using animation to enhance student understanding. Another example is UP systems geneticist Dr Eshchar Mizrachi who is researching the genes or pathways impacting the formation of biomass in trees. The nature of this research (forest tree biology and biotechnology) has broad implications for agricultural biotechnology involving the utilisation of lignocellulosic biomass, which is becoming increasingly attractive as a renewable source for biomaterials and bioenergy.

The main driver of the 4IR lies in the fusion of knowledge for economic advancement and, equally, social justice. Research expertise from a range of disciplines is required to co-create new understandings and breakthroughs to transform society for the better. The foundation of this is a university community that is sustainable, well resourced, at the leading edge of research and future-oriented.

Professor Tawana Kupe is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria. This article first appeared in City Press on 4 August 2019.

- Author Professor Tawana Kupe

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