Education has remained relatively static compared with workplaces that have embraced flexible ways of working. The evolution of technology has driven how and where people work during the past 50 years. Smartphones, tablets, the cloud, and unified communications are recent evolutions of technology that have changed the way people work today, says Jacques van Wyk, COO of Ricoh SA.

While South Africa faces a dire shortage of graduates such as engineers, producing only 70 000 in 12 years, higher education faces another challenge: equipping those who do graduate with the right skills to make a success of their careers.

Liz Shutt, policy director at the University Alliance, says: “There needs to be a real drive for academic professionals to work across the university and business divide. We need to develop skills in interaction with business and in preparing students for the work world.”

University workers must develop new skills to adapt to the changing workplace, particularly in their ability to develop commercial relationships that give industry a greater input into the direction of research. Softer skills like creativity, communication and managerial skills are becoming more important.

Almost 90% of business leaders believe these skills will be vital to the future success of both businesses and individuals.

Creating a flexible higher education system
Digitisation will play a major role in helping universities to integrate more effectively with industry. Alternative ways of providing higher education, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), provide a more accessible and cheaper form of learning. These have the potential to make education easier to combine with work placements or even running a business. Many South African universities have already begun offering such courses.

Through digitisation and the availability of MOOCs, future universities could be unbundled in a similar way to the telecoms industry, with different providers offering the tuition or services they are best at. This is an idea that resonated with Professor Anant Agarwal, chief executive at EdX, a non-profit MOOC platform founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. “If we unbundle time, students can take their first year online, come to the campus for two years, and spend the final year continuously learning within the workplace,” Professor Agarwal says.

It’s clear that both the future of work, and education, are both going to be dramatically changed by digitisation. It’s vital that both education and industry work together now to prepare the next generation for the new working world, and to develop and hone the skills needed to succeed in the workplace.