Criminology academic Professor Nirmala Gopal of the School of Applied Human Sciences was part of the National Skills Authority (NSA) webinar series on Covid-19: Impact on Education, Skills Development and Training co-hosted by the Mail & Guardian newspaper.
It featured the Chairperson of the NSA, Dr Charles Nwaila; Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Mr Buti Manamela; President of the Congress of South African Trade Unions Ms Zingiswa Losi and Dr Layla Cassim, Director of Layla Cassim ERS Consultants CC. NSA Director Dr Thabo Mashongoane facilitated it.
The webinar examined strategies that the government could adopt to establish effective forms of online education, which would free up institutional capacity and resources.
In her address, Gopal noted that, ‘Although the exact impacts of 4IR (the fourth industrial revolution) technologies on society and the planet are still unknown, the fact that they will bring profound and rapid change seems all but certain. This change must be embraced by developed, developing and emerging economies for sustainable economic growth. One key driver of such growth is multi-stakeholder alliances.’
She noted that South Africa is transitioning to a digital economy; hence, skill-sets and appropriate infrastructure are essential to boost job creation. ‘We have to embrace the 4IR or risk being left behind. However, to ensure we are on the same trajectory as the rest of the world we must produce appropriate skills in South Africa. This calls for multi-stakeholder alliances between and among role players. About half the global workforce may not need reskilling, so it’s not all “doom and gloom”’, said Gopal.
She highlighted that South Africa’s workplaces must undertake skills audits to generate a national picture of its caveats. Sector Education Training Authorities play a critical role in assisting with these audits through their workplace skills plans. Hence, baseline data already exists. ‘The Higher Education sector must play a key role in skills development in fields like genomics and artificial intelligence (AI), but it cannot do this in isolation. The multi-stakeholder relationship is critical in this endeavour. But this must be predicated on a Higher Education skills strategy for the 4IR and beyond.’
Gopal pointed to the need for effective monitoring and evaluation of skills strategies following implementation. She also underlined that such strategies must respect the freedom and human rights that are the cornerstone of South Africa’s democracy. ‘Should we undermine these principles in pursuit of economic gain, we run the risk of negative national and international consequences. Nonetheless, skills development must match workplace demands.
‘A shift is needed from routine tasks to curricula designed to develop creativity and innovation. The invention of proudly South African technological products will boost the country. Workers must continuously update their skills to remain relevant. A paradigm shift is necessary to address the inequality gap: teachers must become facilitators and mentors, staff must learn about things like EQ (emotional quotient), students must work together. The basic and higher education systems must speak to each other; the practical component of learning is extremely important.’ Gopal added that collaboration should be the key word for educators, students and other stakeholders like labour and the private sector. Reskilling of academics is equally critical to embrace the new global order.
Manamela noted that, ‘online learning will play a bigger role going forward, but universal access is essential; all students must have computers, and data must be available to all. Sector Education Training Authorities must do more. South Africa is resilient and we are bouncing back from COVID-19. We are on track to saving the academic year.’
Nwaila focused on how COVID-19 has deepened the unemployment and inequality crises in South Africa saying, ‘Let’s invest in women to move South Africa forward.’
Losi pointed out that ‘decisive, urgent steps are required to grow the economy, including a R1-trillion stimulus plan, and the “immediate dismissal” of any corrupt politician. Skills programmes must match the changing workplace; the 4IR is no longer a slogan, but a reality.’