15 June 2021 | Story Prof Francis Petersen | Photo Sonia Small
Prof Francis Petersen
UFS Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Francis Petersen

Opinion article by Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State

The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the acceleration of technology has not only disrupted but has changed the world of work forever. 

With it, the role of universities in equipping young jobseekers has to adapt too.

Instead of seeing institutions of higher learning as temporary stopovers en route to a career, young professionals should rather embrace them as centres of lifelong learning to which they can constantly return in order to effectively equip themselves for ever-evolving career challenges, says Prof Francis Petersen.

It is hard to be young. It sounds like an anomaly. But at this point in the world’s collective history, it is becoming increasingly clear that to be a young person standing on the verge of entering a career and making your own way in life, can be extremely daunting.

In South Africa, unemployment is at an all-time high, with the hardest hit group once again our job-seeking youth – at a staggering 63,3%.

There is also increasing evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly hard on young people, and has left them more stressed, anxious, and depressed than any other age group. 

A contributing reason for this state of affairs – often cited in different international studies – is the stress associated with trying to adapt to remote learning or to online learning, and the inability to engage in person. But the essence of young people’s fears and anxiety seems to lie much deeper.

A Stanford University psychologist recently explained that young people tend to have different goals and relationship behaviours because of the way they perceive time.  When our perception is that we have a lot of time ahead of us, we tend to focus on long-term knowledge-seeking goals, such as investing in a long-term purpose or project – for example, qualifying yourself for a career. These goals tend to be more emotionally taxing. Older people, on the other hand, often perceive their time as being limited, leading them to focus on goals which generate positive moments and engaging in activities that make them feel good.

In the current climate, young people’s goals also seem to be continuously thwarted – adding to the anxiety – as schooling and studying are regularly disrupted and job security diminishing.

On top of that, young people have a much greater need for regular social interaction – a need that is becoming increasingly difficult to satisfy in the pandemic environment. 

So, what is the role of universities in the lives of the young aspirant job seekers on our campuses in such a delicate state of being and with the odds seemingly stacked so high against them?


The start of the journey: Reaching out to first-time entry students

I believe that part of our responsibility lies in not only making our students’ migration to our campuses easier, but also in making their student experience more memorable.  In the current pandemic environment, this poses an entirely new challenge.

Part of being human is to attach value and significance to ceremony and ritual. We need these to mark important milestones and transitions in our lives. And the pandemic has unfortunately robbed us of a lot of that. 

Here we should spare a thought for the matrics of 2020. They had to sacrifice so much of the ritual and ceremony of their final school year. Come 2021, and for most of them, the ‘first-year experience’ was equally anticlimactic, with many traditional and popular mass activities and interactions cancelled or moved online because of pandemic restrictions.

Effective orientation of our first-time entry students remains a crucial aspect of their transition to higher education and provides a firm foundation for their learning, development, and success.

This is especially true of the South African higher education system, where around 70% of the student cohort are ‘first-generation’ students – the first in their households to study at a higher education institution.

Studies have found that first-generation students are in general less involved in campus life, have less social and financial support, and do not show a preference for active coping strategies. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a context in higher education that is unpredictable, complex, and uncertain – making orientation and involving students in campus activities even more challenging.

At the University of the Free State (UFS), we have started with a dedicated drive to not only adapt and streamline orientation, and the first-year experience in the current environment, but also to create opportunities for holistic development, including peer support initiatives and combating isolation in different forms – virtually, but interactive. 


Equipped for the journey: Creating good citizens

It is clear that online learning will remain a large and valuable part of tertiary education – even in a post-pandemic scenario. It can, however, never completely replace face-to-face tuition.

The digital future emphasises the importance of developing skills that would never be substituted by machines, but that would become increasingly vital to use in tandem with evolving technology. Skills such as leadership, empathy, critical thinking, and creativity. Imparting these ‘human’ skills requires human interaction.

Students greatly benefit from the ‘campus experience’ in so many ways.  While they are on our campuses, we give them a glimpse of what an ideal society based on mutual respect and tolerance and guided by social justice should look like. 

In this way, we not only produce good workers, but good citizens.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of acting with responsibility and agency – values we want to impart to our students.

The days are long gone that higher learning institutions focus on academic endeavour alone. At the UFS, for example, along with our core functions of Teaching and Learning and Research, we also have Engaged Scholarship as a strategic pillar, making sure that the knowledge we produce is actively applied in order to advance citizenship and service for the public good – we need to impact society positively.

Universities need to set the tone, deliberately reaching out to the communities around them and instilling that same culture of care in their students.

If there could be a positive consequence of the pandemic, it is this: The overriding sense that, despite divisions of the past, we are all currently facing similar challenges, sparking a true sense of empathy with those around us.

As institutions of higher learning, we need to leverage this momentum of care and ensure that, together with our academic and research endeavours, it continues to make a real difference in our societies in a post-pandemic world.


A constant journey: Upskilling, re-skilling, and life-long learning

In a report released earlier this year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) makes a powerful plea to governments, businesses, and educational institutions to invest in the ‘upskilling’ of the current worldwide workforce. The report finds that there is a stark mismatch between people’s current skills and the skills needed for jobs to be created in the next decade.

What is needed is acquiring relevant knowledge for new types of jobs, for example through digital upskilling, and developing transferable skills, such as critical thinking and creativity. It is often these skills that make people more versatile, resilient, and adaptable.

According to this report, universities can and should play a much bigger role in upskilling and lifelong learning than they do today.

This requires collaboration with industry partners, staying abreast of developments and training needs in different sectors, and constantly initialising and adapting training courses to fulfil these needs. 

This will not necessarily be in the form of full-time study, but rather short modules that can be done online or face to face, involving students at different points in their career paths, completing training at their own pace.

At the UFS, we used the lockdown period to extend our offering of short learning programmes in various fields, with this precise aim in mind.

We also introduced industrial advisory boards in most of our academic departments, with members from the private sector, industry, and government. They keep us informed of changes in their sectors and assist us in co-creating programmes.

In the light of all this, it is clear that universities’ interaction with students are evolving in a significant way – not only in terms of scope, but also in terms of duration.

We need to build long-standing relationships where students are continually receiving follow-up input and training after graduating in order to be equipped for the challenges of the world of work.

This means that we will no longer be simply an ‘alma mater’ that will soon form part of their past, but a present and constant travel partner on the road to work success.

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