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OP-ED: Talking about a revolution

  • Published at 03:56 pm August 22nd, 2020
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To become a developed nation by 2041, we need to adapt to the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Over the last few decades, the decline in fertility and mortality rates in Bangladesh and subsequent increase in the working-age population (15-59) considered as “demographic dividend” relative to the dependents (0-14 and 60+) offer the country an opportunity to accelerate economic growth. 

Shifts in the age structure of a country’s population do not automatically guarantee growth. To reap the growth, the country has several challenges and it requires huge investment in a number of areas and a set of policy commitments to systematically manage its working-age population for productive economic output. 

It is a fact that we are now living in a hyper-digital society -- a “digital age.” The digital age, that began with the internet and mobile technologies, plunges corporations into opening their stores in the cloud and online to mobilize together with its customer base, drag governments into launching their e-government initiatives, financial institutions into presenting themselves in tablets, mobile phones, and social media, by preparing our next generation to look at both local and global economies and societies. 

Cüneyt Dirican, a professor of Istanbul Arel University in Turkey, in one of his conference presentations on “The Impacts of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence on Business and Economics,” clearly mentioned that the “changing form of the business terms and work forces, the way of doing business by using new technologies will have serious impacts on daily business life.

“Many items and headlines such as jobless ratio, Philips curve, performance, management, CRM analytics, customer relationship management, sales, strategic planning, mass production, purchasing power parity, GDP, inflation, money, central banks, banking system, training, accounting, taxes, etc regarding business and economics will face serious dangers, hits, changes, exposures as well as opportunities and gains with the improvements in artificial intelligence and robotics.” 

The essentiality of technical education

Higher education institutions, especially universities with more focus on technical education, should take the lead in addressing this. 

In order to realize the full potential of its demographic window of opportunity within the next 20 years, Bangladesh needs to take very decisive policies to expand its labour markets by investing in youth for their skill development and ensuring participation of the young working-age cohort in the labour markets. 

To achieve the goal of becoming a a developed country by 2041, we need more technical and vocational education and training as well as higher education in the areas of various emerging fields of technology. 

More technical and vocational training and skill development facilities have to be created for our secondary and higher secondary level students in every district and sub-district. 

Beside these, young people need to be guided towards free and open online courses available that will help them to improve their skills and prepare them to be more resilient during times of crisis. 

We need to conduct periodical need assessments on a regular basis to respond to the changing demand of both local and global job markets. 

Need-based skills development 

Nowadays, technology around the world is not only upgrading, but also evolving to become one entity, combining with each other. 

Our enterprises, governments, policy-makers, workers, and job seekers must adapt to these fast-encroaching technologies. 

Experts opine that, as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, many labour intensive production sectors of Bangladesh will have problems with its traditional production processes and eventually will be forced to move towards more mechanization. 

Technology will take over some of the jobs but will also create new ones. According to the experts, the only way to cope with this rapidly changing world is to adapt to the new situation with necessary skills through different advanced technical education, hands-on training, and finally, through practical experiences in different dynamic technical and professional skills, including in ICT.

A recent a2i study shows that nearly two in five jobs face the risk of automation along with technological changes in manufacturing and services. Less educated women workers are more likely to be impacted. 

Deeper, sector-based understanding and internal assessments will enable enterprises to benefit from automation, and the government, as well as education and training providers, have to be prepared for automation’s impacts. 

Researchers are increasingly showing that predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, additive printing, the internet of things, nanotechnology, automation, and robotics are not only becoming better but are also being combined. 

Decreases in their costs and increases in their accessibility promise future prosperity and the creation of new jobs. Such technologies are also challenging the existing configurations of the workplace and forcing dramatic changes at alarming speeds. 

Unless enterprises, governments, policy-makers, workers, and job-seekers pro-actively respond and adapt to these fast-encroaching technologies, opportunities may be lost and numerous industries may find themselves unprepared for the consequences. This is particularly true for all the developing and emerging economies.

Keeping up with the world

To keep pace with the massive changes in course curricula and various disciplines in different universities of the world, we need to bring changes in our own curricula, teaching, and learning methods and focus on new research areas and the establishment of new research centres and laboratories, looking at the growing local and global demands. 

And to match with the emerging needs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, universities should focus more on technological education, relating it with other liberal arts subjects. 

We also need to take linking one major subject with other minor subjects, such as economics with engineering; biology with computer science; business with energy engineering; mathematics with environmental engineering; economics with industrial engineering; anthropology with industry and environment, etc. 

All these new major-minor combinations, dual degrees, or interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary courses/programs are now growing in popularity among the top universities of the world. There can be various combinations of major-minor courses, ranging from science to the liberal arts.

Educating the youth

The expansion of more science and technology-based education should be considered to keep pace with the Fourth Industrial Revolution: A combination of “digital” and “space revolution.” 

This should essentially include more teaching and research on robotics and mechatronics, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things, keeping in mind the introduction of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

There will be massive advancements in information technology, artificial intelligence, and with advances in biological science, virtual and physical systems of manufacturing are increasing in demand. 

Combining big data and machine learning will be one of the major shifts at the global level in the near future. With the advancement of technology at an exponential pace, robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and other innovations with enormous disruptive potential will soon hit the mainstream. 

According to the World Economic Summit, “billions of people worldwide are currently employed in industries that will likely be affected and billions of new entrants to the workforce will need jobs.” 

Thus, we need to prepare our students to fit into that newly-emerging market. Many of our public and private universities have definitely had a fair share of success but they have also lacked in terms of developing their curricula and looking at the needs of the country as well as the needs of a global, hyper-technology based market. 

Coping with the pandemic

Covid-19 has abruptly changed various paradigms related to life and living, technology, innovation, economy, the job market and employment, and industrial culture. 

Governments are considering rolling out large stimulus packages to avert a sharp downturn of their economies which could potentially plunge the global economy into a deep recession. 

All over the world, people in both the developed and developing countries are trying to find new ways to adapt to the new normal as it keeps pace with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

Millions of workers in these countries are facing the bleak prospect of losing their jobs. It is thought that, over the next few years, the usage and applications of ICT will keep changing at a very rapid speed and will have significant impacts on higher education, skill requirements, and job markets. 

According to IOM Covid-19 Response, “with migrant workers highly concentrated in occupations and sectors expected to be particularly hard hit by the economic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis, inevitably, remittances will also take a hit,” while the World Bank projects a global decline of 20% in remittances sent to lower and middle-income countries in 2020, representing $109 billion. 

The situation will be more vulnerable for those countries which are particularly dependent on remittances. More attention has to be given to creating new job markets in comparatively less-affected countries, considering their bailout strategies and GDP growth while also trying to understand what type of new skills will be required post-Covid-19. 

Time to spend

As an immediate action, the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) has been working towards creating more opportunities for higher professional degrees on nursing in all public and private universities, and introducing lab technician courses and other medical courses in technical vocational education and technical training centres. 

There will be a huge demand for skilled persons in the health sector in many of the worst Covid-19 affected developed countries. 

It is not only nursing, health professionals, or bio-technologists but also other various trade-based technical educations will be essential for creating a pool of skilled manpower to export to various developed countries. 

To get more remittance by exporting skilled manpower, instead of our present large unskilled migrants (about 70-80% of our total 11-12 million migrants in more than 150 countries), we will not only give technical education to our aspirant migrants but will also need to provide them with necessary language skills so that they can easily communicate with their employers and get higher positions and pay compared competitors. 

If we can convert our aspirant unskilled labour force to skilled ones, our remittance will definitely increase manifold. 

We need to work out a strategy in consultation with our experts from different government and non-government agencies and institutions to cope with the present fragile overseas job market, especially considering our competitors such as India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, Nepal, and others. 

We need to explore what new skills will be required in the coming years to compete with other countries. 

We need to spend more money for technical education not only to provide higher degrees but different certified diplomas and short courses under various specialized technology departments. 

It is no doubt that a well educated and trained workforce is a necessary condition for physical investment and to generate sustained growth. We need two categories of technical manpower. 

One will be high-tech professionals with the highest university degrees, while the other group will be certified mid-level, technically skilled in specific trades with diplomas and professional certificates from technical colleges or universities. More contemporary science and technology subjects need to be included on a priority basis at all levels of our education system with necessary equipment, laboratory, teaching, and hands-on industry/field-based learning facilities. 

Rural-urban inequality and gender disparity issues in relation to access to science and technology education have to be addressed. Various vocational training and retraining programs can be figured out by knowing how the potential skills crises in different regions at different times were combated by countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan started in 1960s, China in the 70s and 80s, and European countries like Germany even long before that. 

Bangladesh as an emerging tiger of South Asia can also follow the path of these high-tech societies. 

It is good that the government of Bangladesh has set a target to increase the enrollment rate of technical education to 50% by 2050. For this, we have to build technology-based skilled human resources. 

The government has initiated a project to expand technical education in Bangladesh, aiming to develop skilled human resources in the pursuit of middle-income country status. The government has decided to set up 389 technical schools and colleges at the upazila level and one polytechnic institute each in 23 districts to increase enrolment in technical or vocational education to 20% by 2020. 

In 2018, the student enrolment rate in technical education was only 14%, which later increased to 17%. The government has a target to raise it up to 30% to match with SDG 2030. 

The Ministry of Education in collaboration with other aligned ministries has to start working at double speed with more research, development and planning, and a larger budget to reap the benefits of the “demographic dividend” and achieve Vision 2041, keeping pace with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and become a developed nation.

Saifur Rashid teaches anthropology at Dhaka University. Email: [email protected]

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