Imtiaz A. Hussain
It is not that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR) suddenly alerted us to the role of education in accelerating technological progress. If it was not known before, then the incomplete education being imparted today makes it abundantly clear: wasted efforts, unnecessary expenses, and an intellectual stagnation at odds with the competitive world expose the widening gap between technological progress and acquired cognitive skills.
With the First IR in the late 18th Century, basic knowledge modes had to take on the disciplinary formats we are most familiar with today (Economics, Politics, Sociology) to fill the growing job-slots; the Second IR expanded the roster of new disciplines one century later (with Culture, Psychology, and the Natural Sciences, joining the flock, among others) in response to emerging job-slots; encouraging inter-disciplinary courses, in turn, the Third IR produced another slew (International Relations, Computer Science, Business courses, and so forth), another century down the line as more job vacancies cropped up in new arenas. Education got structured over these two centuries, became public, and profited from the long hiatus between industrial revolutions to find anchor.
Yet, since the currently unfolding Fourth IR exposes the shortest hiatus from the previous IR, technological progress may be moving faster than mainstream education can adjust. There is also the exclusivity feature of incremental technological growth: unlike donning a sweater, driving an automobile, and communicating faster through the Internet (each symbolising the respective outcome of the three industrial revolutions), the artificial intelligence basis of the Fourth IR is the hardest to learn, utilise, and standardise. Once missed, the boat of technological progress will leave many potentially bright minds untapped, even as costly education becomes more elitist, involving so much more competition (because it must now be global, not national), that it leaves behind the most intense survival-of-the-fittest instinct. The Fourth IR demands that the technology-education embrace deepens urgently because it also recognises the largest ever gap between education and the incremental technological progress.
In a 2015-16 report, the World Economic Forum (WEF) reminded us of the purpose education serves: to collect and collate skills and expertise with which productivity can be enhanced for each student (or worker). Only a minimal of skills and expertise were needed to produce the Spinning Jenny that got the First IR underway, though innovations increased substantially over the next century as Robert Stevenson's locomotive, Henry Bessemer's large-scale steel production, the automobile that Karl Benz and Henry Ford put on the road, among other creations, generated plenty of jobs. It was when the Third IR's Internet demanded even more intricate skills and expertise over the next one century that we got a sense of (a) growing alienation from education, (b) the commensurately increasing gap between the subject and its students, and (c) an unthinkable satiation point having been reached. Diminishing returns can be attributed in part to (a) appropriate jobs becoming harder to find, (b) education dissemination rates breeding fiercer competition, and (c) the growth of a welfare society, reducing the needs to harness and hone one's skills for exigent moments.
Against that backdrop descended the revolution of revolutions: only a half-century after the Third IR rolled in the Fourth IR, demanding more automation in the market (with drones, robots, and the likes replacing manual and intellectual counterparts), thus fewer manual jobs. Not only that, but also imposing a faster consummation rate than ever before (hardware reproduction, like automobiles, needed an assembly-line in factories, which lasted at least one generation long, thus guaranteeing jobs for at least that long; software reproduction, on the other hand, is swift and fleeting, thus involving an unpredictably short life-cycle, and more job insecurity).
Academic curricula cannot keep pace with this new technological stream: upgrading software every year imposes prohibitive expenses upon universities. Constraints more than catalysts get exposed: opening a brand new study-field necessitates incubation time for dissemination, student recruitment, and training, but during which technological progress will have already shifted to a higher threshold, demanding a rerun of the whole exercise. Inculcating the new knowledge then poses the next challenge, since only an increasingly smaller proportion of scholars will have the skills (unwilling to engage in painstaking and poorly-paid research, students typically leave university as soon as they get a job or complete a professional degree). The net effect: unless there is a long future shadow for every new technology, education will be decisively overtaken by technological progress, pushing universities away from their traditional engagements with petra-dishes, software programs, and laboratory research towards profit-making. Since students have no choice but to enroll, the soap-opera will only perpetuate.
It would be foolhardy to ignore the gist of these WEF reports, particularly for a country like Bangladesh, where only a single university was recognized in a recent global ranking of the Top-1,000 (Dhaka University). One report actually identifies how education-levels affect a country's productivity. Three indicators measure this: the ability to execute functions faster than before or with others; the roles of secondary and tertiary education to mobilise the population with the new tools and technological progression; and by boosting creativity. In all three, we see the growing gaps: in respective order, industrialised countries bend over backwards to preserve employment rather than embrace new technologies as fast as they are being churned out; the greater proportion of undergraduate students do not seek professional or doctoral degrees, at least not domestically; and with creativity-sources disseminating to more locations than ever before, competition makes education very prohibitive.
At least the expansion of appropriate institutions and student enrollment suggest education has become everyone's top-priority in the emergent Bangladesh. Yet, by confusing quantity (of enrollment) with quality (of education), a fundamentally long-term error is being made. Whether the institution is at, or near, the cutting-edge is far harder to determine but ever so easily identified when visible: do the students have the appropriate levels of cognitive skills, and if they do, where do they go for a job?
Turning first to the job-market, we see playgrounds of the Fourth IR everywhere: in banks, government agencies, research and development programs, software programming, informational technologies, engineering, marketing, environmental safeguarding, and so forth. One just has to name it to find it on the list since artificial intelligence can be used everywhere.
The next set of concerns becomes: how do we characterise the new skills, in other words, what's the common denominator to prepare for? In short (and by definition), these will only be transient, meaning no job can ever become permanent any more since the technology is progressing faster now than ever before: more meaningfully, no employer will offer the full range of rewards (long-term contracts, health benefits, pension, and other entitlements). To put it crudely: either adjust to the constantly emerging technology at high financial and social costs, or join the bulging part-time working population with a premature university exit.
The final phase of the puzzle is whether education institutions are in the Fourth IR playground. Unfortunately, almost overwhelmingly they are not: expenses, profit-making priorities, no long-term planning, and either institutional sclerosis or inertia help explain why.
The result: students get packed into classrooms for learning skills of a bygone technology or era. Only those education institutions that stand out by exploring the unknown disciplinary domains offer any glimpse of hope; and that hope does not come packaged in disciplines that fitted the First, Second, and Third IRs: Economics, Sociology, Political Science, Culture, Anthropology, Psychology, International Relations, Business, and so forth. True, they are not "dying" disciplines.
Since today's employer needs not only another skill, but also multiple skills to suit the new technologies, universities have been on the wrong trajectory, moving in the wrong direction, to do much than to recalibrate their axes at spiraling expenses. That is the long leap few, if any, universities have ever taken.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.