Universities need to be mindful of the social impact of their responses to modern technologies and the changing world of work

Published On: 3 October 2019|

What are integrated technologies?

At the recent USAf-hosted National Higher Education Conference, Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, kickstarted his presentation on the plenary titled The Impact of the New, Integrated Technologies on Higher Education’s Future, by saying that when he looked at the topic, he realised that perhaps people are tired of hearing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, “so they have a pseudonym – ‘integrated technologies'”.

Marwala’s paper was full of such humour. For example, when he spoke about the World Economic Forum estimating that much of the workforce will change by 2020, he joked that while he wouldn’t call in a sangoma, higher education institutions needed something to tell them what exactly was going to change about the nature of work.

In reality, Prof Marwala is an expert on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. About 20 years ago he did his engineering PhD at the University of Cambridge on artificial intelligence. In April, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed him as his deputy chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a group of 30 tasked with identifying policies, strategies and actions to make South Africa globally competitive.

So what are these technologies? Prof Marwala said besides those of cyber space such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and augmented reality, there were also “developments in the physical space” such as 3D printing.

“All these things will change the nature of higher education,” said Prof Marwala.

He cited the banking sector where not only were machines able to do some things such as credit scoring better than humans could, but new banks were exclusively digital, backed up by minimal staff.

This meant that those few people left in banking needed to “be skilled differently than we have been educating”.

“So how should a curriculum for the banking sector of today look like?” He asked.

He said Michael Jordaan, former CEO of FNB and now head of Bank Zero, which has no branches, had told him that bankers of the future will need to be more software engineers than economists.

Caption: “We now need to empower our students with both technological and social skills,” says Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

This, said Marwala, means the BCom curriculum needs to incorporate science and technology.

He said factory production was no longer mass automation but “intelligent automation,” with a human being intervening or supervising the machines. “So the psychology that we teach today, shouldn’t be just the psychology of people; i) should be the psychology of people interacting with machines”.

He said a study had shown that “if we take away your cellphones for three hours, you become a different person. Because that device has become part of you, it has become part of your psychology”.

He said when he had studied engineering as an undergraduate (at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio in the US), he had been expected to take 12 human and social sciences, “something that we don’t do in South Africa”.

As difficult as it was going to be to implement, “we actually need to have a multi-disciplinary educational experience” such as this, because it was key to exploring integrated technology.

The next speaker, Prof Derrick Swartz, former vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela University, continued the light-hearted tone punctuating the session by picking up on Prof Marwala’s comment about the cellphone study: “By the way, I switched off my cellphone, Tshilidzi , so I’m not sure if this a different personality speaking here about questions of ethics”.

He said if Prof Marwala was an optimist of the future, he was something between a sceptic and a realist, “maybe a critical realist”.

How would we want the new technologies to solve our “socially-inclined” problems?

Prof Swartz said he thought the starting point for a discussion on this topic was to challenge these technologies in terms of their impact in tackling the problems we, as human beings, wanted them to resolve.

He identified challenges these technologies needed to be tested against, in terms of how they would help us:

  • deal with “the spectre” of social inequality, poverty and unemployment;
  • create “future human societies in a world with diminishing resources”;
  • address ecological and climate destabilisation;
  • achieve sustainable and more proportionate human consumption and production; and
  • construct alternative economic and social systems in harmony with the earth’s metabolic and ecological systems.

He stressed that “generally speaking, we don’t know what we don’t know”. Therefore “the promise and the perils as they are emerging must be modest, must be carefully circumscribed and must be underpinned by robust empirical evidence”.

Our sacred social values must inform our technological choices

He also argued that “sacred values” such as social justice needed to be placed at the centre of our technological choices.

Then he came to the crux of the discussion – the impact for universities: “For universities we shouldn’t be hastened by the hype into over-instrumentalising and being short-termist in our curricula innovations”.


Caption: Universities must not hasten to make short-term curricula decisions before they weigh up the benefits of these new technologies against their impact on our sustainability agenda, Prof Derrick Swartz, former Vice-Chancellor of Nelson Mandela University, cautioned.

“I have four ideas to put on the table,” he said, introducing a slide with the headline “Universities have Choices” :

  • Universities should build alliances with social forces committed to embracing the twin challenges of social justice and ecological sustainability;
  • We should help to construct innovation bridges and R&D platforms which actively explore sustainable alternatives to the existing orthodoxies in economic development;
  • USAf’s World of Work Strategy Group needs Communities of Praxes modelling progressive alternatives; and
  • Universities SA should explore prospects of establishing a publicly-owned national digital system to expand the size and reach of the HE system.

Prof Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf, picked up on Swartz’s comment about “we don’t know what we don’t know”.He brought to Prof Swartz’s attention, a study concluded by the University of Cape Town’s Researcher, Ms Amy Thornton, who had actually shared her findings at one of the breakaway sessions in this conference on the sectors of industry that stood to shed the most jobs on account of 4IR. Ms Thornton had clarified that while jobs would not be lost evenly across the spectrum, the 4IR also stood to stimulate job creation along the way.

Prof Bawa said he had attended an international meeting in Barcelona , the GUNi International Conference on Humanities and Higher Education: Generating Synergies between Science, Technology and Humanities. GUNi is the Global University Network for Innovation and 160 people from 22 countries and diverse fields attended the gathering in November last year.The USAf CEO said the GUNI team brought in science fiction writers to talk about what science fiction predicts for the future, and then worked around that. “I think it points to this very big challenge that we do face, which is about looking at integrated curriculum, science, engineering, humanities, social sciences coming together”.

Prof Yunus Ballim, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Sol Plaatje University, said he had heard people say: “Your graduates are useless; they don’t know which button to press on the machine”. And I’ve said “Well, I hope my graduates never come and work for you”.

“It tells me that what we mustn’t forget are the foundational questions about the purpose of higher education in our society. Our students will probably be doing jobs in 10 years’ time that don’t even have a name yet. We are not going to be able to train them for that job and anybody who thinks that we should, doesn’t understand what universities do”.

Caption: “We must always bear in mind the fundamental purpose of universities in society. It is not simply to serve the short term needs of profit,” Prof Yunus Ballim, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Sol Plaatje University, raised another flag

“So the conversation we should be having among ourselves is the need to rethink curriculum, the need to rethink pedagogy. The serious challenge that is presented is that our humanities graduates leave without a full understanding of technological issues…”.

“We need to keep in mind, keep our eyes on foundational arguments for why universities are there in a society and it isn’t simply to serve the short term needs of profit”.

Prof Marwala responded by saying that universities’ primary responsibility is good education, “which basically means that if you come and do a technical degree and you know very little about society, that education is not good for you”. He said graduates who had a spread from humanities to technologies would find a space in the new dispensation.

Prof Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of Wits University, said he wanted to ask Prof Swartz what he asks all his socialist comrades: where do we go from here? He said he agreed with him “entirely about the really complex challenges we face, and you touched on it in your last slide”.

Prof Habib threw out a challenge: “How do we marshal the collective leadership to bring together a coherent agenda on this?.How do we marshal an agenda which I worry we don’t have, despite all the summits, because we don’t put resources into it … that’s what I’d like some reflection on.”

Prof Swartz responded by saying that it was no different from how universities had always taken up big challenges; they should take up conversations with “the powers that be”. He said Prof Bawa had commented earlier about what was the purpose of the knowledge project. If it was reduced it to discussions about technology per se, then he, Prof Swartz, feels we are missing the point.

“I think we need to be activistic, progressive, we need to assert public interest issues on that agenda and I am aware like you are (Habib), as other vice-chancellors — as I have been in that job for a while as you know — constantly having to manage strategic dilemmas…”.

“I’m not anti-corporate and I’m not arguing against alliances with corporations. I’m arguing negotiating terms of interaction and mediation to shape those R&D agendas, innovation agendas, that can put these questions at the heart of those technology innovation debates.”

All I am advocating for is a research and development agenda that places the human at the heart of technological innovation debates and choices, Prof Swartz told the national higher education conference.

Written by Gillian Anstey, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.