Like universities all over the world, South African universities are grappling with the implications of living in the era of the fourth industrial revolution, where there is a blurring of boundaries between the physical, digital and biological domains.
They are asking themselves what the accelerating combination of machine automation, the changing nature of work and the ubiquitous digital mediation of daily life means for the core function of a university, ie that of knowledge production and dissemination.
At the same time, South African universities are also asking what these profound social and technological changes mean for their role in a deeply unequal society and whether they will hinder or enhance the democratisation of knowledge creation and access.
The challenges posed by the fourth industrial revolution are closely linked to other challenges facing universities in general, especially the persistent state of underfunding of public universities and the rapid marketisation of the sector in most places in the world.
It has been convincingly argued during this era that capitalism itself has been restructured into a new form, platform capitalism, whereby the big digital platforms (Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook) are reshaping the nature of the economy.
Higher education scholars are warning that this in turn is leading to the emergence of the ‘platform university’, underpinned by a data-driven business model designed to extract profits from higher education and its market opportunities.
The social justice imperative
It is in this situation that public universities everywhere must ask themselves how they can continue to fulfil their missions of civic responsibility and inclusivity for democratic ends.
In the light of the country’s history, South African universities also ask how they can contribute to redressing the wrongs of the past to address the stark social and economic divisions resulting from hard-to-shift structural inequalities in the country.
Unlike many other public universities elsewhere in the world, South African universities are especially aware of this imperative and express an overt commitment to a social justice agenda.
They are less entangled in marketised discourses than higher education sectors elsewhere (like England and the United States) and are in a stronger position to confront the new digital era with the will to leverage the emerging models and digital affordances for the public good.
This requires a concentrated focus of building on their core strengths, including research, policy engagement, innovation, curriculum review, professional development and enabling students with appropriate graduate attributes.
Encouragingly, there is already evidence of original initiatives that are framing and exploring elements of the fourth industrial revolution or 4IR with a public good agenda.
Social justice research principles
Central to the university mission is research, and here an essential role is to apply principles of social justice to continually deepen understanding and analysis so as to name the changing environment and identify the elements of the 4IR which can advance the common good.
There are important examples where this is already happening. The Fairwork Foundation project is a collaboration between universities in South Africa, India and England to study the best and worst practices in the emerging platform economy with the specific intention of protecting workers in the digital ‘gig economy’ and ‘sharing economy’ through establishing core standards to ensure increased fairness in work practices.
In a different sphere, the Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research, a research network across five South African universities, explicitly aims to enable an enhanced quality of life for all South Africans. It aims to develop local expertise in artificial intelligence technologies so that these technologies can better be adapted to solve South Africa's social problems and to reduce the country's reliance on the developed world for new technologies.
Social science research locally has a solid foundation in matters of poverty, inequality and social justice and is well placed to extend its reach as the material and the virtual worlds amalgamate in ways that as yet are far from understood.
The neoliberal shortsightedness that has seen social science and humanities departments being closed down elsewhere in the world must not be repeated in South Africa. If anything, the opposite is needed, so that the principles of more humane agendas can drive research into the 4IR.
Policy and regulatory engagement
In a country confronted by the systemic erosion of state capacity that has been enabled by widespread corruption, it is tempting for universities to turn their attention elsewhere.
The national education department, an already contested space, has understandably had to prioritise other issues, such as the fees crisis. There is a serious risk in not engaging at the policy and regulatory level in the 4IR because leaving market forces to determine the required new and refined frameworks will not serve the needs of social and economic inclusion.
It is essential that South African universities deepen their commitment and consolidate their expertise to participate in the creation and revision of national policy frameworks that anticipate the profound impacts of new structural and regulatory frameworks emerging in the new digital era.
Existing legal frameworks are often archaic, and unable to accommodate entirely new practices and possibilities. Too often the revisions to these frameworks are being led by market interests, and it is essential that academics concerned with a different agenda ensure that new structures and frameworks foreground and prioritise the public good.
In one case, in a move named by students as 'Decolonising Copyright', University of Cape Town (UCT) researchers have joined forces with others to advocate for the ratification of the current Copyright Bill, which protects knowledge creators (rather than monopoly companies) and supports the adoption of ‘fair use’ in law as well as containing an innovative educational use right.
Innovation and experimentation
Emergent opportunities in the digital era are just that – emergent. Despite the confidence of futurists, no one knows for sure how the confluence of current trends will play out.
But in this setting, the fall of the innovation dice is increasingly weighted to serve vested economic interests. It is therefore essential that universities enable and enlarge innovation spaces to expand the possible, and to do so with an agenda that serves social needs.
Here new teaching and learning modalities are receiving attention in South African universities with the growth of blended and online teaching models intended to provide access, flexibility and relevant content.
Examples here include a blended course being conceptualised at UCT on ‘decolonised African science’ as part of a formal accredited degree programme.
At UCT, postgraduate online degrees targeting crucial capacity development for national needs include the development and offering of postgraduate diplomas in public sector accounting, TB-HIV management and emergency medicine.
The University of Johannesburg offers a range of online degrees that offer flexible entry and ‘pay as you go’ options in programmes such as public health.
There has also been lively experimentation around non-formal provision across a number of South African universities that pays attention to local needs through, for example, massive open online courses (MOOCs) on climate change in developing countries, African climate adaptation, social innovation and African philosophies of education.
Knowledge dissemination is about teaching; deciding what to teach; how to teach and for what ends. The questions pertain to the nature of appropriate curriculum content and whether the right expertise is being gained.
Once again, there are exciting examples. A long-standing postgraduate course at UCT on media and the public domain explores debates about copyright, cultural appropriation and access to knowledge in relation to newer technologies.
Another example is a large-scale curriculum review process where UCT has joined, along with a number of other South African universities, a global open access platform that encourages the study of undergraduate economics from multiple epistemological perspectives, enabling the enlargement of theoretical perspectives and fresh scholarship.
This is being done through the development of an openly licensed digital textbook which will make available new content to all, thus combining two imperatives in the same initiative.
Exclusion of the Global South
That the fourth industrial revolution requires new competencies is undoubted. The concern that such skills are increasingly concentrated in the Global North is threatening exclusion of the Global South.
South African universities have responded to this trend to grow and develop skills in, for example, artificial intelligence and, more specifically, machine learning.
A recent initiative is the Deep Learning Indaba whose mission is to strengthen machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) in Africa and work towards the goal of Africans being active shapers and owners of these technological advances in AI, as well as to support transformation and diversity.
South African universities with a commitment to social justice have to grow their capacity to reformulate curricula for the 21st century. This requires ongoing professional development initiatives for staff (whose jobs themselves are predicted to be ‘reconstructed’) as well as thoughtful engagement with students to ensure the inclusion of the voices of those born in a digital era, as well as the development of appropriate graduate attributes.
Reframing the agenda
In South African universities there is evidence of a counter narrative to the dominant version of the university as a marketised knowledge economy, as promoted in the Global North. But this counter narrative is being constructed on the basis of relatively isolated pockets of activity. These are small scale. They are soft-funded. They are ad hoc and fragmented.
A significant shift is required if these activities are to consolidate to constitute a significant alternative social imaginary whose raison d’être is the public good and social justice.
Existing national policy frameworks will need to remain firm in their commitment, prioritising the allocation of resources to maximise the affordances of the digital and the possibilities of the 4IR for the public good.
A social justice framework must be reasserted if the inexorable pull towards profit-making is to be resisted as the supposed solution to educational ills. Nuanced and careful thought is needed for the determining of new policy and appropriate regulatory frameworks tuned to the rapidly changing context.
The fact that this new 4IR era is in its early days is a great opportunity for South African universities to develop the vision and commitment to build on, grow and integrate a vision of the common good, to shape the planning of research, teaching and innovation pathways which build on and learn from exciting initiatives which are already underway.
This will ultimately ensure that graduates will be well equipped to critically engage with a complex world and contribute to a knowledge society that benefits the many rather than the few.
Professor Laura Czerniewicz is director of the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching, South Africa. The original article can be viewed on the University World News website.