AfricaLive speaks with University of Johannesburg Vice-chancellor Prof Tshilidzi Marwala to discuss the future of African education in the era of the fourth industrial revolution.
AfricaLive: What does it mean to be an African higher education institution today?
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala: I am passionate about education because I believe it is the only way we can develop as a society. I think that matters of science and technology are essential not just for industries but also for our political class. I would like our politicians to be in the know about science. In the future, I want the people we elect to be pulled from a much more diverse skillset so that we can be able to take the nation forward.
The literacy rates in the continent are not where they are supposed to be, and the scientific literacy rates are even worse. My vision is to make the University of Johannesburg a leader when it comes to the fourth industrial revolution competencies. I want to position it as a catalyst for the economic, social and political transformation of the African continent so that it can have a stake on the evolving global issues of our time. In this day and age, we must teach differently; our curriculum must also be different in a multidisciplinary sense. If you are majoring in science, for instance, you must also do social sciences and vice versa. This is important because the world is shifting fast in favour of people with diverse skills. Multi-skilled people are more likely to succeed because everything is interlinked now. You might have a project that needs a lot of engineering knowledge, but that project is still linked to society.
One of the conversations we are having here in Johannesburg is how a post-Covid-19 world will look like. How will international relations change after the pandemic? Before Covid, going across borders was all about applying for a visa. Post-Covid might see a lot of checks and stringent actions. What could this mean to our freedoms? Data has been dubbed the “new oil” with companies such as Facebook and Twitter collecting a lot of it in African countries. We do tax oil extraction, so why are we not taxing data extraction? Shouldn’t we regard data extraction as an economic activity and treat it as such? We also have companies like Airbnb which operate without having a single office in the country and without paying taxes. All these issues that affect our continent are what I am basing my vision on. We must produce graduates that are ready to participate in the economies of the future.
AfricaLive: When it comes to fostering research and innovation in South Africa, how has your identity as vice-chancellor played a role since each head leaves a footprint in an institution?
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala: One of my legacies as the vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg has been to bring issues of technology to the forefront. We push technology forward through conversations as the leading voice for the fourth industrial revolution in South Africa. We were instrumental in the South African government’s decision to pursue matters of the fourth industrial revolution. Our efforts have been fruitful because our president is now the chairman of the fourth industrial revolution commission, where I serve as his deputy. The courses we offer at the university are well aligned with our agenda. We have courses like the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Accounting as well as Ethics and Fourth Industrial Revolution. We also require all our students to take a course on Artificial Intelligence. Students do not need to be able to write algorithms and do the math, but at least understand it in its generalities. I have firmly put the fourth industrial revolution on the national agenda as well as in our institutional consciousness.
AfricaLive: What are some of the flagship projects in research that have been undertaken since you took over as Vice-Chancellor in 2018?
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala: One of the things that I have introduced at the University of Johannesburg is the Futures Institute.
The Futures Institute was set up to look into the issues of the future. We have been able to do fantastic work through the institute because it is now leading conversations. Our institute is leading the way when it comes to Covid-19 conversations. The institute has attracted contributions from very high-level people including the former President of Malawi, the Deputy Minister of Finance, as well as the former advisor to President Obama on African affairs. In my time in charge, we have also set up a business school that offers an MBA grounded in the fourth industrial revolution.
Multi-disciplinary education is also top of my agenda with many new courses being introduced.
AfricaLive: What trends do you think will shape the future of African education, and how do you think institutions can adapt to the changes?
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala: The increased digitisation of our education is the biggest trend we are witnessing right now in South Africa. We were already doing blended learning before all the digitisation became widespread. When students come to our classroom, they will already have viewed a preview of what will be taught through video. Their job will be to engage in discussions when they get to class as opposed to just sitting and listening to the professor. Digitisation is a blessing, but it also has its challenges. Now that our students are predominantly learning from home, we realise that internet connectivity is a problem. Secondly, some students don’t have the necessary devices to get into online platforms. It is easier when they are on campus because they can go to the lab where they will have access.
Another arising issue coming up is the classroom buildings issue. Is it prudent anymore to have classrooms that can hold over a hundred students? That would make social distancing impossible in this era of Covid-19. We have also introduced internationalisation. We have a programme called Africa by Bus. The programme saw us take students to other southern African states such as Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique and others. This year’s plans were messed up by the pandemic. The upcoming issue will now be; if we need to cross borders by bus to work and meet with other students and schools. We now need to prepare our students to work with multinational teams on online platforms because that is the world we are moving into.
AfricaLive: What should be the future relationship between academia and the private sector?
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala: The relationship should be strong, and I would add that our institution already has strong links to industry. If you look at the Resolution Circle, for instance, which is owned by our institution; you see an institution that is doing well. We have worked extensively with energy companies and mining companies for mutual benefit. If you look at our industrial boards in the university, you notice that leaders of certain industrial entities often chair them.
AfricaLive: A number of vice-chancellors have spoken about the challenges they have faced when trying to get the attention of the industry when it comes to research. What efforts have you made to get the industry to take notice of African research?
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala: One of the strategies we have adopted is to encourage our academics to sit on boards of directors of companies. For instance, an organization like Johannesburg Water will have an academic from this institution. One of ours also sits on the board of directors at our local electricity company. I personally sit on the board of one of our major banks. Exchange of staff and students becomes easier if you are there. We believe that for industry and academia relations to be strengthened our people must be in the industry and the industry must be in the university. At the moment we are inviting industrial players as visiting professors.
AfricaLive: Research output from Africa is still low. How do you think this can be remedied, and can South Africa become a leader when it comes to research?
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala: Research has to solve local problems and make things work better for local industrial players. There is a need for a firm understanding of society for our applied research agenda to work. We can become a leader when we become good at identifying the problems that face our people and providing workable solutions.
AfricaLive: You completed your Artificial Intelligence (A.I) PhD in the year 2000. Does the world need your knowledge and vision from back then today?
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala: Yes, because A.I has not changed much. There are very few technologies that are going on today that I did not see then. A lot of ideas tossed around today about deep learning were around in the eighties and nineties as well. What has changed today is that we have much more data to analyse. I remember having trouble storing two megabytes of data back then. Another significant change is the rise of fast computing power. What used to take days, now takes a few seconds. So past knowledge is not necessarily redundant; we just have faster and more exciting applications today.
AfricaLive: If you were to have a roundtable meeting with the top authorities in your country and other stakeholders concerning education, what would go first on your agenda items?
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala: The first thing for me would be skills. We need to have the right skills for the world that is unfolding right before our eyes. It is important that our education, whether formal or informal is able to fill the skills gap in our country.