Opinion: Universities in Africa must do more than teaching
With the rise of robots, humans will quickly need to learn new, complicated skills “just in time” to remain relevant.
Graduates of the 2013 ceremony at Africa University wave their caps in the air in celebration. Photo: umc.org
By FRANK SWANIKER
London, March 23, 2018 (AltAfrika)-The figures are damning. In South Africa, over 65.5 per cent of young job seekers straight out of school cannot find work, a number comparable to the Greek situation during the crisis.
In northern Africa, still recovering from the economic shocks of the Arab Spring, the youth unemployment average is 29.3 per cent. In Kenya, this number is 17.3 per cent, the highest in East Africa.
While governments, aid agencies and policymakers grapple with how to bring down these numbers, few academic institutions are stepping up to play their part in combating the crisis.
We live in a brave new world where obtaining a university education is no longer a guarantee of employment. Few professionals today can claim to do jobs that are linked to what they studied at university. In fact, the majority of people have changed careers more than once, sometimes because the job they did ceased to exist.
Today, typists and telephone operators are obsolete, office secretaries and bank tellers are disappearing, and in the near future, the very idea of a “job” could be extinct.
The more profound implication here is that education has an expiry date. The knowledge one gains from a degree programme has a short life span. It quickly becomes irrelevant in a dynamic labour market.
Our minds forget, and soon, the facts and figures we learn at university are no longer relevant. Our brains simply cannot retain facts and figures beyond a few months after we have learned them. This is especially true in a world where more and more information is constantly being thrown at us.
We also filter information, our circumstances and priorities change, our worldview shifts and our very own dreams evolve. For instance, I entered college thinking I wanted to be an actuary, then a lawyer, then an investment banker.
I ultimately ended up as a McKinsey consultant and after two years of working, I became a biotech entrepreneur. Today, I run a university that is itself re-inventing how we think about education.
Fourth Industrial Revolution
Universities around the world are struggling to keep up with how much change is going on in the world. The oldest existing, continually operating and first, degree-awarding educational institution in the world (according to Unesco) is Al Quaraouiyine in Fez, Morocco.
It was established in the year 859. The next oldest is the University of Bologna, which was founded in 1088, almost 1,000 years ago. The world has changed a lot since then, but university education has changed little.
A learned member of the institution would pass on a culture of ideas, schools of thought and miscellaneous knowledge through speech. Scholars who memorised, and sometimes wrote down, these teachings would aspire to be as learned as their tutors, to become individual catalogues of information, continuing the tradition by concentrating as much knowledge within themselves.
The major innovation today is perhaps the learning resources that are now ubiquitous such as textbooks and journal articles but, often, they are already outdated by the time they are assigned.
We are now confronting the possibility of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning are already making it possible for robots to do jobs that human beings currently do, with more efficiency and better results. Think of the self-driving car, which is already being tested. The drivers of today may soon be out of a job.
With the rise of robots, humans will quickly need to learn new, complicated skills “just in time” to remain relevant. To prepare for this new world, the purpose of university education needs to shift fundamentally from “learning facts and figures” to “learning how to learn.”
Universities need to also impart skills like critical thinking, communication, leadership, entrepreneurship, quantitative data analysis, and how to manage projects and complex tasks. These are the skills that will endure as technology evolves. These skills make people employable today and prepare them to create their own jobs.
This is not merely a trend located in Silicon Valley. It is happening right here in Africa. Poor infrastructure may well delay the adoption of automation such as self-driving cars. But it will not stop Africans using drones at scale.
In Rwanda, drones are delivering drugs to the remotest parts of the country. Thousands of Uber drivers across the continent get their directions from GPS technology. Information on the matatu (public service transport) system in Nairobi has already been digitised by a group of engineers at the University of Nairobi.
The question for Africa is whether we are ready to confront a new world of work that is driven by artificial intelligence, machines and robots.
We need to start with the question of whether or not our universities are prepared to provide the education that prepares Africans to fully leverage the benefits of technological advances in the 21st century.
At the same time, they need to focus their efforts of making their graduates immediately employable by teaching them skills relevant to the current labour market.
The truth is that our universities are hardly prepared for this challenge. They should start by inducting their graduates into a culture of learning how to learn. Education should move from a one-shot game to a lifelong one.
The degree that students obtain today is less important than the person’s ability to continuously learn new skills to fit into a fast-changing world. We have to change mind-sets from an obsession with static degree courses and the perception that one is done with learning shortly after that point, to thinking about initial degrees as the foundations for lifelong education.
The facts and figures our students learn today are a means to an end. They are not the end. The faster we embrace that as educators on the continent, the faster we can begin to bring down those unemployment figures.
Dr Fred Swaniker is the founder of the African Leadership University, a pan-African university offering programmes to develop the next generation of African leaders.