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Navigating the storm of COVID-19 together: Partnering and collaborating to prepare students for a changing world of work

Author: Professor Michelle V. Esau and Dr Gregory Davids

The negative effect of COVID-19 on the overall wellbeing of citizens has permeated all sectors of our society. UWC Profs Esau and Davids weigh in.

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(Published - 28 July 2020)

When Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize announced South Africa’s first COVID-19 case, it ignited a wildfire of pessimism and our nation’s anxiety levels started to soar. The negative effect of the virus on the mental and physical health and financial wellbeing of citizens has permeated all sectors of our society.

However, it also unlocked unique South African grit. Despite limited resources, we embarked on a dramatic shift in thinking and behaviour. Schools started Facebook accounts to share worksheets, unemployed seamstresses filled stores with colourful homemade masks, and entrepreneurs went from cleaning offices to sanitising spaces.

The pandemic has also given rise to behaviour that illuminates the connectedness of humanity. Compassion, empathy and generosity of spirit are evidenced daily throughout South Africa in support of the more vulnerable and marginalised in our society.

But COVID-19 has also reinforced the socio-economic inequalities in South African society. The chasm between those who have and those who have much less, levels of unemployment and poverty have all increased as a result of this pandemic. The downward spiral of our economy that pre-dates the arrival of the coronavirus to our country has been exacerbated.

In response, there has been the collaboration, partnership and engagement between the government, corporates and non-governmental organisations in trying to find novel ways of dealing with our new normal and imagining a post-COVID world. It has been encouraging to witness the speed at which the government has responded to the pandemic, in some respects. For example, the introduction of social relief and an economic support package of R500-million. Key government officials have openly engaged with higher education institutions in mapping out novel ways to navigate a post-COVID-19 world.

The Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, recently participated in a webinar hosted by the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences (EMS) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), entitled “Social solidarity and equitable health care for all in a time of COVID-19 and beyond”. He reminded UWC of its historic role in the fight against apartheid. Moreover, Dr Mkhize observed UWC’s role over the past 60 years in providing leadership and shaping the policy direction of the government.

“You have been preparing for the role of the era: to be the incubator that shapes policy and governance and equips staff in the Department of Health, indeed across the departments and spheres of government, with competencies and attributes that will change the healthcare environment,” he said.

UWC in general, and the Faculty of EMS in particular, given its interdisciplinary nature, has a significant role to play in preparing students for a changing world. A world that, through the pandemic, has shown itself to be highly unpredictable, socio-economically underprepared, at-risk and vulnerable. Emerging lessons from the pandemic show that the world of work has changed, and it demands a new way of thinking and behaving. It requires leadership and a workforce that can function effectively in a rapidly changing environment.

The ideal future employee must display many attributes such as agility and flexibility to navigate an uncertain world while achieving goals and outcomes. The future workforce must innovate and be creative in solving complex and novel societal problems. Importantly, the workforce must embody an ethos that is ethically sound, disciplined, outcomes-driven, and independent yet interdependent. This is a radical shift from the outdated bureaucratic mode of thinking that has proven to be ineffective in dealing with the prevailing socio-economic challenges – let alone crises of any magnitude.

On the one hand, this new normal requires that institutions of higher learning make sense of the changing reality. On the other, we are expected to respond meaningfully through research-led teaching and learning pedagogies that equip future leaders with the necessary skill-sets to influence the future direction of policy. As a matter of course, we must drive the agenda of an engaged university. This implies strengthening existing partnerships and establishing new ones where necessary. The heavy lifting will not only happen in South Africa. Higher education institutions around the globe will have to change.

An article by Farnam Jahanian - President of Carnegie Mellon University in the United States – was published on the World Economic Forum website recently. It explored how higher education can adapt to the future of work.0

“There is an undeniable need to train the next generation in emerging digital competencies and to be fluent in designing, developing or employing technology responsibly,” Jahanian wrote.

“At the same time, 21st-century students must learn how to approach problems from many perspectives, cultivate and exploit creatively, engage in complex communication, and leverage critical thinking. With a future of work that is constantly evolving, these non-automatable ‘human’ skills are foundational, and will only increase in value as automation becomes more mainstream.”

The UWC community is once again called upon to provide leadership in response to the clarion call of the minister. In the words of Dr Mkhize, “COVID-19 must be our chance to invest in the things that matter as a country, and build a lasting legacy of true emancipation, empowerment and equality to access, access to quality health care and access to opportunities.”

* Professor Michelle V Esau is the Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at UWC. Dr Gregory Davids is a senior lecturer at the School of Government in the Faculty of EMS.

For media inquiries, please contact Nashira Davids on 072 413 2749 or nndavids@uwc.ac.za.​​

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