There is an adage that states “if you want to know the future of a nation, study the behavior of its teachers”.
The most potent force for political, economic and social progress in society is education. The measure of how great a nation will rise is determined by how many people in its population are educated. The African continent today has a total purchasing power parity gross domestic product (GDP) of $6.7 trillion, and a population of 1.2 billion people.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in 2016, sub-Saharan Africa had a literacy rate of 76% compared to 89% in South and West Asia, 87% in the Arab states and 98% in the developed nations.
This literacy rate in sub-Saharan Africa is far from adequate, and calls for urgent and practical action to improve it.
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We are living in an era characterized by the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) where technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain are changing all aspects of our lives. Factories are automating. Because of these changes, the nature of work is changing.
Many jobs are disappearing altogether, and new types of jobs are being created. For example, we now have jobs that did not exist 20 years ago, such as Data Scientists. AI is now able to diagnose severe diseases such as pulmonary embolism, epilepsy and leukemia complementing the work of medical professionals. Because of the rapid automation in the medical field, doctors today require an in-depth knowledge of technology.
These changes in society because of 4IR require new sets of skills. Are our education systems ready to capacitate our people with the requisite skills to tackle the problems of 4IR? Do we have enough teachers at all levels of our educational systems to be able to give our people skills that will make them useful in the 4IR era? Do we have enough educational institutions to be able to skill our people? Unfortunately, the answers to these two questions are in the negative.
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Given that we do not have enough teachers nor educational institutions to provide a critical mass of our people the requisite capabilities that will help them survive in the 4IR, what is to be done? One way of tackling this problem is to take a lesson from the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who realized that for India to thrive in the 20th century, it needed to invest in elite technical education. In this regard, he introduced the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT).
Nehru had this to say in 1956 at the first convocation address of the first IIT in Kharagpur, a city in West Bengal: “…Here in the place of that Hijli Detention Camp stands the fine monument of India, representing India’s urges, India’s future in the making. This picture seems to me symbolical of the changes that are coming to India.”
It is vital that African countries create a few elite institutions that will drive the African continent into the 4IR. The Pan-African University supported by the African Union is a good start, but we can do more.
Additionally, these elite institutes should not be limited to higher education only but must also focus on primary and secondary education. One example in Johannesburg is the African Leadership Academy (ALA), which targets gifted 16-to-19-year-olds. Today, the ALA has alumni from 46 different countries making an impact on the political, economic, and social aspects of the African continent.
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For us to thrive in the 4IR era also requires our educational experience to be multi-disciplinary. In our limited institutions of higher learning, students enrolled for programs in the human and social sciences must also study technological subjects.
Those enrolled in technological programs must study human and social subjects. Technological subjects should focus on the issues that confront the African continent, such as affordable and appropriate technology, limited and incomplete data, and cost-effective manufacturing.
The human and social subjects should focus on the urgent issues facing Africa today, such as social cohesion, connectivity, stability, conflict and unity. Due to the limitations of physical infrastructure and good teachers, African countries should pull their resources together and invest in online platforms to facilitate education through modern techniques such as blended and augmented learning.
The outcome of the education system, whether at primary, secondary, or tertiary levels, should be logical, numeracy and verbal skills. These skills will give our people the capacity to tackle the challenges of the 4IR such as coding, problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and decision-making.
– Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He deputizes President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.