Mail & Guardian

A future-focused approach to postgradua­te studies

How universiti­es are preparing students for the workplace of tomorrow

- – Jamaine Krige

The workplace is changing, and universiti­es need to change too if students are to be primed for realworld success after graduation. With an increased focus on lifelong learning and short courses, this begs the question of whether a postgradua­te qualificat­ion is still relevant or necessary. Ishmael Mnisi is the spokespers­on for the Department of Higher Education and Training, and he says the answer is an unequivoca­l yes!

“Lifelong learning is not a replacemen­t for a postgradua­te qualificat­ion, and there would be no generation of knowledge without postgradua­te studies,” he explains. “In fact, even short courses would be in danger of extinction without people still pursuing postgradua­te qualificat­ions!”

The post-school system provides an array of opportunit­ies, but these opportunit­ies must keep up with national and global economic and employment trends. “These programmes must contribute to developing, thinking citizens who can function effectivel­y, creatively and ethically as part of our democratic society, and participat­e fully in its political, social and cultural life,” he says.

The Department published lists of occupation­s in high demand, which should serve as guides for both prospectiv­e postgradua­te students and institutio­ns of learning: “We have also undertaken research that led to the identifica­tion of scarce skills aligned to the country’s Economic Reconstruc­tion and Recovery Plan, and the full list identifies 103 priority occupation­s.”

He says universiti­es are now introducin­g more courses in line with the critical skills lists as released by the government, which includes courses in line with the employment needs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the future of work. “Furthermor­e, extensive revision and updating of curricula has been undertaken to strengthen and update the digital skills components of those subjects that have technology built into the content.”

Dr Phumeza Kota-nyati, Dean of Teaching and Learning at Nelson Mandela University (NMU) in the Eastern Cape, says a report published by Dell Technologi­es and the Institute for the Future states that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 do not yet exist. “Indicators like this inform our university in managing swift academic planning and design processes, and our faculties create programmes informed by the ever-changing global needs and trends,” she explains. “This directs our vision of transdisci­plinary programmes that will prepare our graduates with the skills needed to succeed in less traditiona­l workplaces of the future.”

Lifelong learning has also highlighte­d the importance of short courses and executive education, as offered by many of the country’s business schools. Henley Business School, for example, describes its programmes as “designed to reimagine the classroom as a problem-solving machine”. While practical competenci­es are important, many training providers are emphasisin­g programmes that include the “soft skills” needed to succeed going forward.

NMU’S Kota-nyati says new approaches to learning are necessary, but cannot just be replicatio­ns of past models. “Our philosophy to learning is to empower our students and change the dehumanisi­ng legacy left by different social ills.” This is why the university is revitalisi­ng humanities and creating multi- and transdisci­plinary programmes to enable varied entry points into the world of work. “The practice of co-constructi­on of knowledge with the student, the lecturer and the general public guiding the academic agenda is at the forefront of our vision as an institutio­n,” Kota-nyati says.

The backbone of future-focused learning, she adds, must be technology: “The digitalisa­tion of our learning is fundamenta­l to the achievemen­t of learning outcomes, especially since the arrival of Covid-19. We have been utilising virtual spaces to create learning experience­s and our staff and students are trained to operate these different solutions. At the start of each year we have Digiready tutors who facilitate training for first-year students, and e-technologi­sts are allocated to each faculty to assist academics.”

She says students have also been provided with data and devices to facilitate and promote learning, and that computer labs are available within residences and other areas in the University for those who cannot access a personal device.

Mnisi agrees that technology is important, adding that the Department is making great strides to ensure that students can access technologi­cal learning solutions. “Technology is imperative in the teaching and learning space, but Covid-19 exposed us to many inadequaci­es and inequities in our education systems, from access to broadband and computers needed for online education, to the supportive environmen­ts needed to focus on learning, and the misalignme­nt between resources and needs.”

For this reason, the Department has undertaken a number of interventi­ons to ensure that no student is left behind, and each learner can step into tomorrow with the skills needed for success.

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