In recent years there has been a buzz the world over concerning the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). SA has jumped on the bandwagon, with many 4IR advisory structures and strategic partnerships being established. These include the presidential commission on 4IR, the partnership for 4IR in SA (4IRSA) and the ministerial task team on 4IR in higher education and training established by former higher education minister Naledi Pandor. The latter was established to advise the minister on how higher education and training should respond to 4IR.

But what is 4IR and how does technical and vocational education respond and adapt to it? University of Johannesburg (UJ) vice-chancellor Tshilidzi Marwala, a thought leader on the subject, categorises 4IR into three “intelligent technologies”: the physical (intelligent robots, for example), the digital (the internet of things) and the biological (individual genetic make-up). While the first, second and third revolutions were driven by steam power, electricity and electronics (computers and internet), 4IR is driven by artificial intelligence (AI), which refers to computers that can “think” like humans — recognising complex patterns, processing information and drawing conclusions.

AI requires skills that are not exactly the same as tose of the last three industrial revolutions. Yet according to Pandor, “only 11 out of 26 SA universities offer course modules in 4IR and related fields of AI and robotics”. Furthermore, none of our existing 50 public technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges offer any courses related to AI and robotics. So how does the postschooling system, in particular TVETs, respond to the demands or requirements of the 4IR? How do we structure the curriculum and its content, what needs to be taught, who will teach it and what jobs await those who have been taught these new concepts and skills?

At the recent international conference on education and teaching, Prof Sarah Gravett, dean of the UJ education faculty, asked these three pertinent questions for preservice teacher training: should we prepare teachers for the schools that are, the schools that should be, or the schools of the future? Put differently, how do we balance the need for adaptability (schools of the future) with pervasive challenges, including content pedagogical knowledge in literacy and numeracy (schools that are)?

The same questions apply to the TVET sector. TVET lecturers go through the same training as school educators but, given the technical and vocational nature of TVETs, a further requirement is expected of them, that of industry knowledge and expertise. In many instances, TVET lecturers do not have industry knowledge (as they have never worked in industry) but are expected to teach students in practical ways about industry skills and concepts, and thus prepare them for the world of work. This is despite a lack of work exposure programmes for TVET lecturers at systemic level during and after completion of their qualifications.

Furthermore, national accredited technical education diploma lecturers are expected to teach a curriculum that is outdated and lags behind applied disciplinary knowledge. The vocational national certificate curriculum, which was introduced in 2007 to address some of the industry and curriculum relevance challenges, does not meet all the needs of the vocational programmes, and also does not enjoy universal support in the industry. The issue of the TVET curriculum remains a key sticking point for the relationship between government and business as it affects the type and quality of skills produced for industry by the system.

With more than 730,000 students and 18,000 lecturers respectively in SA TVETs, the fundamental question is whether we are preparing lecturers and students for the future. As industries decline in the country, there is no longer a major requirement for low-skilled occupational trades such as weavers (first revolution), office administrators and machine operators (second revolution), yet TVET colleges still offer programmes related to office administration and human resources, with enrolments in these programmes in many cases exceeding those in information communication technology (ICT) and engineering.

This is despite the need for digital, electronics and engineering skills, which are key for the transition to the 4IR skills of coding and robotics. When one interrogates the policy and strategy documents as well as published certification or success rates, it becomes clear that the ICT and engineering programmes are the courses with the lowest certification across the vocational national certificate programmes. So what needs to be done?

In responding to the buzz around 4IR the following needs to be filled:

  • Preservice training and industry experience for TVET lecturers need to be revisited. Few universities offer TVET-specific training for lecturers. Many lecturers have bachelor of education degrees (the core education qualification) without specialisation in the trades that they need to teach at college level. With 4IR, many lecturers may also need upskilling and exposure to what is practically happening in industry.
  • The TVET curricula need to be updated to be aligned to industry needs in consultation with key stakeholders including students, lecturers and industry. These curricula need to take into account the pressing needs of the economy, such as the development of artisans but also the need to develop programmes that offer AI-related content in relation to artisanship.
  • The curricula need to take into account what is commonly referred to as “21st century skills” such as critical thinking, people management, emotional intelligence, judgement, negotiation and cognitive flexibility. TVET colleges can play a critical role in not only dealing with the weak foundational knowledge of students but can be instrumental in preparing youth for the future world of work.

If there is no balance between the current and the future in terms of curricula, industry exposure or lecturer adaptability — neither students nor lecturers will ever be 4IR ready. This is because SA’s industry and higher education and training, whether ready or not, will be affected by the 4IR and therefore TVETs have a unique opportunity to keep abreast of key industry trends and respond to the requirements of 4IR. TVETs have tended to lag behind in the past, but if they don’t respond quickly this time there is a chance that, as a training subsystem, they will become irrelevant and defunct.

As we engage with Gravett’s three questions for preservice training, researchers, practitioners and government officials in the TVET system need to ask hard questions as they relate to lecturers and students. This is because, as Prof Marwala argues, “4IR will revolutionise industries so substantially that much of the work that exists today will not exist in 50 years”.

• Tyatya is a PhD candidate in the education faculty of the University of Johannesburg.