Envisioning the Future

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With Janine at the Life Groenkloof hospital in Pretoria, I have been spending about four hours a day in my BMW. The time has not been wasted. The time has been used to envisage the future and to question why things are performed in the current manner. Trapped within my car with me, Alesha has been forced to endure my thought processes and speculative rantings. 

Amongst the topics discussed have been whether the university degree in its current format was dead, the future of the car radio & modern forms of electricity generation. 

Pictures: All of the pictures in this blog do not relate to the topics addressed but rather they reflect the wonder and beauty of nature 

 

What is the value of the University Degree in the future?

I contend that the current tertiary education model is broken for multiple reasons. It does not serve the needs of the students, employers nor the long term needs of the employee. As such, it needs to be completely rethought.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
 W.B. Yeats

According to reports, there are 800,000 students in South Africa in some form of tertiary education.  The total cost of providing this service is between R 54 billion & R 80 billion per annum. That depends upon whether one costs it narrowly – tuition only – or more widely to include accommodation et al. Even if South Africa could afford this level of expenditure on free education, will the country be receiving the biggest bang for their buck?

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The first issue is the degree’s relevance now & in the future. With predictions that the retirement age will be extended to 70 years over the next decade or two, where does that leave the long-term relevance of a degree earned solely at the commencement of one’s adult life?

The current tertiary education model is based upon a few years of study post matriculation and then no more. Secondly, current job structures are too inflexible to allow career changes in mid life. Yet surely, with working spans becoming longer, one cannot expect employees to peak in their careers by age 40 and then to perform essentially the same job for the next 30 years until they turn 70.

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The human brain is not designed for long-term stagnation & repetition. Nor are the types of jobs. 

Relevance of the degree

In certain disciplines, it is highly relevant that a person possesses as wide and as in-depth knowledge as possible. If Dr Zondagh had failed the course on diseases & disease control, would Janine have trusted him to perform her vertebrectomy. What if he had bunked lectures on ENT? Of course not. This logic could also apply to courses such as architecture and engineering but does it apply to BComms and BAs?

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Take myself. I have a CA(SA). In my first year, amongst the courses that I studied were Economics 1, Bedryfsekonomie 1 – it was a bi-lingual university – Maths for Accountants 1. In essence, all three of these courses were a waste of time. In year 2, we studied Computer Science 1, which amounted to programming in Fortran & Cobol, Handelsreg 1 & Maatskapy Reg 1. Perhaps the two law subjects were of some use but the computer course was a complete waste of time.

In practice over a career spanning 40 years, little of what I learned and for which I spent six years of my life was largely a waste of time. The real reason for my dismissive attitude is that the course did not largely prepare me for my work life. The practical courses such as Accounting, Tax and Costing were extremely important in my future career but the rest were a waste of time.

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These irrelevant courses could have been substituted with the following practical courses:

  1. The role of the Financial Manager / Director
  2. Managing the Treasury function – forex, loans etc
  3. The role and utility of Computers including courses on Excel, Word, Power Point, Access & ERP systems
  4. Managing staff, leadership, management, negotiating skills et cetera

Let us take my children as an example. In spite of being bright, my son hated school and barely scrapped through matric. After school, he took a very basic course on Graphic Design. Soon afterwards he had started his own company, which meant making pitches to companies and individuals.

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Eventually he obtained a job in a Telecoms/IT company & is thriving. On the side, he is involved in a separate venture with three other business partners.

On the other hand, my daughter took the traditional route of obtaining a BComm degree in Accounting. After 2 years of working at Standard Bank, she resigned, as she hated the working conditions. For 3 years, she has been unemployed both due to the recession and no doubt due to not meeting BEE requirements. Will she ever get a job? Maybe but possibly never. Will she ever start her own company? No never.

What are the key ingredients required to thrive in the new economy? Most are not obtained by studying for a degree.

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I might be extremely dismissive and disdainful of SABC’s resident clown, Hlaudi Motsoeneng and his abilities, but he made an insightful comment at a News Conference at SABC last week. According to him, most people with degrees would rather retreat from difficult or intractable problems, whereas he would be drawn towards the problem in order to resolve it, no matter how punishing.

Cowardice is often displayed by managers in times of crisis. Rather than grappling with the problem, they will let it fester rather than address it head-on.

The attributes required to succeed in business are tenacity, leadership, integrity, innovative thinking, negotiating skills amongst others. Yet how do we rate managers? Whether they hold an MBA, a CA or another tertiary qualification.

We all know people with a string of degrees but who are useless in a business environment due to the lack of these attributes.

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Is the current model of huge university campuses still relevant in the internet age? Shouldn’t most of the lectures be online where students work at their own pace? Finally instead of education being a once in a lifetime event, it should be an ongoing continuous journey throughout one’s life.

Take the case of my previous skin specialist. At the age of 50, he was thoroughly bored with life. He might have spent 8 years studying but now he was removing moles from 8am to 17:00 every day. The same applies to teachers, nurses, accountants, auditors, truck drivers.

Perhaps certain jobs such as teaching and nursing should be reserved for the under 45s at which point they will have to choose a new career path.

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Humankind has not even commenced the dialog on the transformations required to transition work and society into a model of continuous learning & multiple disparate careers.

The one model could replicate the Japanese industrial model whereby one commences one’s career as a traditional employee and then later in life one becomes part of a subcontractor to one’s previous employer.

Lastly, what will the fate of the mega-factory be in an age of 3D Manufacturing? The requirement for managers with management and accounting degrees will shrink whereas practical business acumen will predominate.

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The university degree is dead

Dion Chang, founder of Flux Trends, is much more radical in his views. He espouses the mantra that the university degree is dead.

He advances the following five reasons for saying so:

  • In terms of scarcity, degrees have become more common, therefore less valuable in economic terms.
  • Degrees cost more today, but are worth less. The debt repayments versus future income equation simply do not add up.
  • Modern businesses do not consider degrees essential anymore (last year accountancy firm EY announced in London that it will no longer consider degree or A-level results when assessing potential employees).
  • The new HR mantra of “hire for attitude and retrain for skills” (this puts into question the link between tertiary education and what the changing job market requires).
  • The growing divide between “legacy companies” and new, agile “responsive companies”. Legacy HR models tend to value “managers” – people with graduate degrees from prestigious business schools. In a “responsive company” the emphasis on people is all about making and learning. “Makers” are people who have skills – as opposed to credentials. They think by doing: experimenting, testing, and learning.

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The car radio

So far most of the electronic appliances have undergone a revolution – the cellphone, the computer, the music player – mainly due to Steve Jobs. Yet a few have not experienced this radical change.

Yet.

It is a matter of time.

Various companies are working on the future watch but none has obtained traction. Instead they are expensive toys at best with short battery life.

There is another piece of equipment, which has not, as yet, been subjected to the Jobs make-over: the car radio.

In form, function and content, the current car radio is outdated and needs to be cast in the dustbin together with DOS, VisiCalc and values.

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Firstly, the CD player functionality needs to be removed with immediate effect as the day of the disk is long gone.

Secondly content. The radio should facilitate the use of non-radio station content such as streaming, connection from iPods or music stored on a hard drive within the radio. This would allow one to record radio stations and, much like DSTV, and listen to the program offline. For instance, in my case, I would listen to The Money Show on 702 Talk Radio at my convenience and not at 6pm.

Radio stations playing music will be moribund within a few years.  With unlimited choice available through streaming, who would want to listen to a specific station where at best one enjoys 50% of the music? The future is all about choice and options where one is unchained from a government’s or the station manager’s tastes and selections.

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The future of power plants

Consider this statistic. Every hour of the day, the sun is bathing the earth in sufficient energy to power the world’s economy for a year. Yet, greater than 99% is never used.

Currently solar plants are being constructed in areas where the percentage of sunlight hours is maximised such as in the Northern Cape.

What about the massive freeway network from Joburg to Pretoria? This road could be covered with a “roof” of solar panels. However, cheaper solutions are currently on the horizon. Currently under development is a flexible, lightweight fabric that can harvest energy from the sun. The one proposed use of this fabric would be to convert one’s clothing into a personal solar panel in order to power personal appliances such as iPods and cellphones.

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But what about other uses?

Instead of huge massive structures bearing solar panels across the highway to support the panels, a light-weight frame would suffice.

A team of researchers in China has claimed that they have developed a fabric manufactured from cotton and two advanced electronic fibres. While one fibre generates power from sunlight, the other, called a “fibre supercapacitor,” stores the electrons and provides current, like a battery.

Furthermore the scientists claim that their fibre can withstand the bending, twisting, and wrapping normal to industrial weaving, a critical area in smart-fabrics research. Fixing rips in the fabric is not as easy as ironing on a new patch—connecting a new swatch into a garment represents a “delicate sewing process,” according to the new study.

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The material has been tested at light intensities between 70 percent and 120 percent of the sun’s average, and works in natural and artificial light.

With this material being light-weight and able to be rolled up like any other fabric, the installation of these solar “panels” would so easy that the normal non-DIY inclined person would be able to lay them on their house’s roof thus freeing ever more people from a gigantic monolithic grid.

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3 Comments

  1. Hi Dean
    Your thoughts on the university degree is something that I have thought about for many years now. In fact I started a PhD on it in 2001, but with all work commitments and kids I never finished it.
    Add to your arguments the trend of increasing life expectancy (120 for a person born in 2000) it becomes clear that current social models will become obsolete.
    The conclusion that I came to was that most people will undergo either an abrupt or gradual transformation into a second career/life, that will require new studies etc. My models at the time indicated that the “first timers” will dominate the natural sciences and the “old timers” the human sciences.
    The complication with educational, social and financial of the present is obvious.
    I think we need to debate this over a glass of wine, preferably around a fire somewhere.
    Regards
    Johan

    Reply
    • Hi Johan, I really can only speculate what the future model will look like. This blog was merely an attempt to start the process. The problem is that it is not only education that will need to change but the jobs themselves. Maybe the natural versus human sciences would be a split but would it apply in all cases.

      I would love to share a glass of wine

      Regards
      Dean

      Reply
    • Hi Johan

      My brother’s views

      It is a question that has vexed me over the years and I don’t really have an answer. You are right in that we learn all this stuff at varsity and then never seem to apply it again in our working lives so what was the point. Of my engineering class, I was one of the few (probably less than 1%) of the people who throughout their working lives actively remained as broad based a designer as possible. I eschewed all management roles and, although a mechanical engineer, actively tried to widen my skills in electronics design, computer programming and simulation, control systems analysis and scratched around the edges of aerodynamics, structural design, RF etc.

      And yet I still only used a fraction of what I learnt at varsity. One of my core courses throughout was Thermodynamics and I did particularly well at it. That subject was the least use to me as a working engineer not to mention gas dynamics and heat transfer. Nevertheless, I believe that somehow I needed the background knowledge of all those courses to make me a good design engineer.

      You specifically refer to your own experience that Accounting, Tax and Costing were extremely important over your career and the rest were a waste of time. The problem was that when you left school, you didn’t really know what you wanted to be. You had narrowed it down to the B Com field as opposed to history or teaching. You further nailed your colours to the cross of becoming a CA. That was probably a mistake. But what would have happened if you had joined a bank rather than an industrial group. You might have found that you had a penchant for economics and then your ‘useful’ courses of Accounting, Tax and Costing would have been useless.

      In fact, let’s take this problem all the way back to school. Why did you learn to cut out shapes in Sub A? You weren’t going to become an artist. In fact it is a skill that you have never needed in 63 years on this planet. What about geography? Did we really have to learn over and over again that maize is grown in the OFS and grapes in the WC? All this knowledge and skills, on their own, are useless to us but somehow we need them all. What about maths? Do you really need maths if you want to be a doctor, lawyer (non commercial), psychologist, actor, photographer, COO of SABC, salesman, waiter, cleaner, politician, in fact, just about anything.

      In fact, do you need maths to be an accountant? When last did you need anything more than +-/*? You use percentages now and again but when have you last used logs, powers let alone solved equations? In fact your level of usage of maths over the last 30+years of your life has been hardly more than the stage that Imogen is at (Std 5/ Grade 7)!!!!!!!!!!!! Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

      What about English? Did we really have to plough through Shakespeare and gerundives to make ourselves understood? In fact, in the 100’s of documents and reports that I’ve written, I’ve never once quoted Shakespeare and hardly written in anything other than simple tenses. Being technical in nature, my sentences have been short, simple and direct with no emotive language and a minimum of adjectives. Yet many documents that I have read, particularly from the diploma guys, have been the worst written stuff that I have seen to the point that I normally just wrote them over myself as there would be too many corrections.

      So in summary, you started wondering why we even do degrees and I used roughly the same arguments and took it all the way to Sub A. I haven’t offered any way out of this conundrum yet so let me try.

      First of all, I believe that all knowledge and education is good and somehow we need all the little bits of unnecessary stuff to make us better people and to have clearer insights. It is not the facts themselves that are important, but the process whereby we acquire the facts and, as we progress, how we marshal these facts into different arguments. The person who enjoys English hones their analytical skills by studying how emotive language is used in adverts, whilst the history buff hones the same skills by synthesizing the causes of WWI. They are both achieving the same end, just using the subjects that they enjoy to train their brains. It is similar to the need to sustain ourselves where we all eat different foods.

      Secondly, does having a degree predispose us to success or is it a hinderance. The answer is neither. It just depends on the person. I know many of my peers with only a matric who have been far more successful than me and thus I do not look down on anyone who ‘only has a matric’. On the other hand I know many matriculants who are not successful. And then we must measure success. Is it success in business or success in life?

      I would like to note that throughout my career I have consistently observed that non degreed people’s arguments are shallow and often miss the point. Further when they are confronted with stuff that they have never dealt with before, they are all at sea. Is it because I did a degree that I am smarter or is it because I am smarter that I desired to do a degree?

      Another point to consider is what are the marks obtained actually worth. High marks might indicate that you are very bright but that is not necessarily an advantage in the workplace except in academia itself. High marks could also indicate a commitment and drive to do well and a capacity for hard work. These are all good attributes. Ideally we would like to know that a person gets high marks whilst only having a moderate IQ. Further, consider this point. On the one hand you have a conscientious student who attends all the lectures, does all his homework and gets, say, 70% in the exams. On the other hand you have a joller who has low attendance, barely hands in his tuts, crams like hell for the exams and also gets 70%. Who would you employ? Conventional wisdom says that the consistent worker will remember hisr work long after the crammer. The crammer’s knowledge will soon dissipate. In fact if he were to be tested a month later he would probably fail. I, however, think that the crammer is the better bet. After all, it’s not the facts that are important since, as you pointed out, you didn’t make use of just about anything that they taught you at varsity. I pick the crammer since he demonstrated the ability to absorb a whole lot of facts in a short space of time and spew out coherent answers that are a synthesis and a combination of the facts. The other guy is just a plodder and not particularly bright. So the marks, per se, are pretty meaningless.

      The other thing to consider is the whole varsity vibe thing. This doesn’t properly affect the people who don’t stay in Res. For the rest though, it is quite heady. You are thrown together with a bunch of bright kids who are at the peak of their creative and rebellious powers. You explore the alternative side of life and constantly search for answers. You question everything, even your own existence in the wee drug or alcohol fueled hours. That expansion of the mind you cannot teach nor do you get it at colleges let alone your mooted online education. This is where varsity education is so important.

      If I might digress a bit, education online is like homeschooling. Everyone thinks it is great and efficient except the kid learns nothing about the most important thing in life, namely, interacting with people. All the bullying and angst is part of the deal of growing up. In a similar vein, being part of a dissolute rebellious but bright and enquiring crowd from a variety of backgrounds as a student broadens the mind. Distance learning just doesn’t give you that. The other thing that distance learning doesn’t do for one is to focus the mind on the course at hand. Very few people have the discipline to sit down on their own every day and chip away at their courses.

      There are numerous other points I could make but I’m a bit bored with the topic. Overall, I support varsity education as we currently practice it. Ongoing education is important particularly in the modern world. In past centuries, one’s career was good for a lifetime and in fact your child could also pursue it with you mentoring him. The pace of change has quickened to the extent that you become obsolescent within 10 – 20 years if you do not change and any career that you started out with will unlikely be a winning career for your kids.

      Reply

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