In the automation industry, the education and training provided at universities and colleges have, for various reasons, drifted away from industry requirements. The SAIMC plans to close this gap, whatever it takes, including participating in a global effort by the Automation Federation to establish a distinct automation engineering discipline.
Academic institutions have been producing high-calibre graduates for many years. So what has changed? Well, a few things have:
1. The IRR (Institute of Race Relations) reports in The South African Education Crisis, May 2018: “In 2015, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked the education systems of 76 countries from around the world. The rankings were determined by examining how well students performed in science and mathematics tests. South Africa performed poorly. Of the 76 studied this way, the OECD said that the country [South Africa] had the 75th worst education system. The only country that ranked lower was Ghana.”
2. “Education is like building a house, education being the foundation,” said Marc van Pelt, MD of Pepperl+Fuchs. “Weakening the foundation weakens the structure, making it extremely difficult for South Africa to adopt Industry 4.0 in particular.”
3. The current products of the education system (graduates) have learnt the basics (some say, learnt how to learn). This is true, but nowadays industry also needs graduates to be knowledgeable about specialised technical equipment, i.e. industry no longer has the resources to teach them about this, they must already know it.
4. Production has had to become more efficient and equipment more specialised in an environment where fierce competition continues to erode profit margins. Industry can no longer afford the luxury of training new graduates in the use of the technical equipment. However, industry is willing and able to teach them about the application of technology in specific processes.
5. Many educators have very little or no industry experience, while those who served in industry years ago are no longer technically ‘current’. Inevitably this means they revert to teaching the basic material, which these days can easily be found through YouTube or Google.
6. Industry has mostly withdrawn from the education system, leaving academic institutions to fend for themselves. This means they often lack the latest technology platforms for practical work, in addition to the educators themselves being unfamiliar with them.
Academic institutions cannot keep pace
Technology is evolving so fast that many academic institutions are not able to keep up – both in knowledge and in facilities. While it is still true that postgraduate work at certain institutions is creating sophisticated mathematical models and theories that are used by industry, a far bigger percentage of patents and new innovation now originates from industry itself – creating new revenue streams every year.
The net result is that the tertiary and vocational education has become so inefficient at meeting industries’ requirements that many companies have resorted to developing their own training facilities. Poor basic education further exacerbates the problem. Worse still, the education system appears to be so bogged down in policies and procedures that it is unable to cater to fast-changing industry requirements.
Of course there are exceptions: some good examples include the students who participate in challenges, like the one for solar powered vehicles, and other competitions. These students have skilled themselves in when, where and how to use the latest technology, rather than simply being aware that it exists. In addition, they are ably assisted by educators who have not lost their passion to stay abreast of the latest technology developments.
Other examples are education institutions that experiment with the latest technologies, while assisted by industry. Such institutions advance innovative ways to produce synthetic limbs for disabled people, or develop new models for wind turbines, automatic tool trays, coffee bean roasters, etc. As examples of what can be achieved if educators and industry work together, such activities should be incorporated into basic education and not be left to the handful of students that volunteer their services.
Unfortunately, exceptions alone cannot bring a country to terms with the latest industry revolutions. As one educator put it: “We battle to create relevant new courses as first a CESM (classification of educational subject matter) code must be assigned.” While we need some degree of regulation to keep the system consistent, future regulations must be designed to produce graduates with the skills needed to keep South Africa a competitive manufacturing nation through the fourth industrial revolution.
Part 2 in next month’s issue will examine the importance of industry involvement in education.
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