THE Fourth Industrial Revolution is happening. It is real and the higher education system needs to constantly evolve to remain relevant.
As the evolution of lifestyle is no longer determined by traditional forces, but by technology that is advancing at breakneck speed, the prospect of manual jobs, particularly in production, are becoming redundant with the “rise” of machines.
Cast into the forefront of this new challenge is Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka (UTeM), which has been given the mandate to galvanise the shift in industrial practices and mindset in the face of exciting times.
Recently, UTeM Vice-Chancellor Professor Datuk Dr Shahrin Sahib laid down the depth of changes required by the higher education sector to stay competitive.
He also broke down the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as Industry 4.0, into several points — the pace of technology; the way it affects people, lifestyle and industries; as well as the need to prepare the country’s higher education system to meet demands.
“The way people react towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution may be slightly falsified from what was originally intended,” said Shahrin.
“Practically, the term used is the ‘rise’ of machines. We are talking about things that are being automated, meaning this is something real and it is happening now.
“We have seen mechanical body suits. And this is real. We are not talking about Iron Man anymore. It is now a reality. For example, American soldiers are already wearing such body suits.
“As far as visioning technology is concerned, if you have seen some of the latest United States aircraft technology, the pilots can literally see anything using different light frequencies.”
The revolution, Shahrin said, revolves around two things — digital manufacturing in terms of product innovation and the Internet of Things.
The Internet of Things means everything is connected and controlled by the touch of the finger. For example, online household appliances that can be switched on or off with a smartphone.
“When talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are also talking about design. Designing used to take maybe five years before a product hits the market, then it shrunk to two or three years, and now, it takes 12 months. People are talking about shrinking it further to six or three months,” said Shahrin.
“The best example is watches. Now you see watches are becoming obsolete because things are moving into a different platform.
“Technology permeates on every front. We are talking about cars, phones, gadgets of every sort. Even the manufacturing processes itself.
“This is where the most important focus of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is — the mechanisation of things. This revolution is about real changes in technology, which really change people’s lives.
“People now do things differently because of that. People’s lifestyle has changed because of technology.”
The point is that higher-learning institutions, especially UTeM, which focuses on technical and vocational education and training (TVET), need to adapt to changes to stay relevant.
“The prediction is that whatever is manually-based repetitive work, it will disappear. If we’re talking about car manufacturing, even if high-end cars are still handmade by skilled workers, the mass produced ones are all mechanised.
“If you walk into a factory, you will see robots doing the welding, putting the cars together and painting them.
“So, the higher-education sector needs to be in tandem with technological advancements so as to produce graduates with the required skill sets. This has to be addressed now with the right thinking and the right direction.”
Shahrin cited a quote from the book The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab, which read: “Shape a future that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding ourselves that all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people.”
This, he said, was the best description of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
“People talk about technology as if the technology itself is the end result. This is where we get it wrong. It is first and foremost by people for the people.
“The end is not the technology. A watch is no longer just a watch. It is now tailor-made for the people who wear it, to help them live a healthy life by monitoring heart rate, physical activities and temperature.
“Thus, it is very important to look into various aspects of education to make sure that they meet the prevailing requirements and outcome.”
UTeM’s preparedness programme includes hiring lecturers with a minimum of five years’ industrial experience. Student internship programmes are also set up to six months to ensure adequate exposure.
New programmes are also introduced, including ICT-based ones, such as gaming technology and computer security, while engineering programmes will be expanded to oil and gas, as well as aerospace and aeronautics.
Four new programmes at UTeM have been approved by the Higher Education Ministry, which are technology-based engineering (mechanical, electronics, electrical and manufacturing).
“In the context of technology, UTeM has invested a considerable amount on hi-tech machines and equipment that are of industry-scale, so as to ensure that our graduates are industry-ready.”
An “open-learning culture”, which includes massive open online courses and personalised learning environment, have been introduced, where academicians assume greater student-centric roles.
“Innovation and product turnaround is so fast. That is the scenario that provides us the challenge in this revolution and how we ensure that the country and our human capital remains competitive in the near future is vital,” said Shahrin.
“The new catchwords are retraining and multi-skilling. We need to unlearn and relearn because if we do not change, we will not only be producing graduates with the wrong skill sets, and we will end up having many jobless graduates.
“The education system needs to prepare for this. This is why in terms of exposure for our students, our curriculum will be broad based, to ensure that they still have a strong fundamental knowledge, while the attributes of creativity and entrepreneurship needs to be nurtured in the system.”
UTeM, in its 17th year of inception, has been given the mandate by the Higher Education Ministry to initiate changes in tertiary education for others to follow.
“We are here to change old perceptions. People used to say engineers are square pegs, who cannot fit into round holes. But since I assume the Vice-Chancellor’s post, I said we should change this perception.
“Engineers now should be seen as polymorphic, in tune with the times and able to adapt. If you want them square, they can be square, and if they need to be round, they will be so,” said Shahrin.