engineering education africa

Strong links between engineering faculties and Industry is the key to transforming engineering education in Africa

Joseph Mutale Education & Youth Development

“Sufficient engineering capacity is essential to the economic and social development of any country. It is a basic requirement for the provision of infrastructure that enables better healthcare, access to education and the development of an attractive environment for foreign investment. It is a key driver for innovation and growth.” Source: A Royal Academy of Engineering Study, 2012, http://www.raeng.org.uk/publications/reports/engineers-for-africa

The value and importance of education, in general, has long been recognized as the key to sustained development and prosperity of nation-states as well as for individuals.

For various reasons, most African Governments are not providing the resources needed to ensure high-quality education that is fit for purpose. This has led to low skill levels undermining economic development and the continent’s global competitiveness. Without high-quality education, particularly in science and engineering, it is not possible to achieve sustainable development. While poor governance is largely to blame for the generally poor state of infrastructure in most developing countries, I would argue that poor education is at the core of this state of affairs. With population growth in Africa projected to double to almost 2.5 billion by 2050 (United Nations – World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision – https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/publications/files/key_findings_wpp_2015.pdf), without innovation in the delivery of education it will not be possible to cater for the burgeoning population in Africa whose youths are projected to represent 37% of the entire world’s youths by the same date (UNICEF Report – Generation 2030|Africa https://www.unicef.org/publications/files/UNICEF_Africa_Generation_2030_en_11Aug.pdf). To provide employment and opportunities for these youths is an imperative that cannot be ignored. The answer lies in providing good quality education fit for modern times.

However, while it is very clear that education, in general, is critical to development, it is worth noting that the type and quality of education are equally important. In this piece, I will attempt to articulate the case for engineering education and argue that a good engineering education is a primary driver for development. Just to be clear, engineering/technical skills cover a broad spectrum from crafts, technicians, technologist to degree level engineers. The term engineer is reserved for practitioners with degree level qualifications. In the ensuing discourse, I will focus on degree qualified engineers.

Many have lamented the lack of productivity and engineering capacity in Africa. According to UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova,”In Namibia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, there is one qualified engineer for a population of 6,000 people — compared to one engineer per 200 people in China and an estimated 2.5 million new engineers and technicians are required in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of improved access to clean water and sanitation.”  Source: UNESCO – Africa engineering week – http://www.unesco.org/new/en/unesco/events/prizes-and-celebrations/celebrations/international-weeks/unesco-africa-engineering-week/

Under the current models of engineering education in most African countries and indeed in many countries around the world, graduate engineers are equipped with the knowledge but only limited skills for them to adequately perform their jobs as professional engineers. Therefore, much like doctors, graduate engineers must undergo a period of training before they can be entrusted to lead and take responsibility for the work they are employed to do.  Training is generally defined as providing trainees with the knowledge, skills and attitudes for them to perform their work competently. The current model of engineering education worked for a while but it is now proving to be inadequate especially post-privatization of public companies, that were to some extent compelled to provide positions for engineers. All too often private engineering firms are reluctant to higher fresh graduates preferring experienced engineers. With the scarcity of employment opportunities, many graduates are left without a job and hence no opportunity for structured training. This is wasteful not only because it is very costly to educate engineers, these highly educated engineers often leave the profession altogether. There are no accurate statistics to quantify the problem but anecdotal evidence suggests this is a serious problem that must be addressed.

Because most engineering curricula do not include modules on entrepreneurship and employability skills development, the graduates that fail to find work stand have a slim chance of transitioning to professional status. This matter has not escaped the attention of major stakeholders including national Governments, the African Union as well as international development cooperating partners. For example, the African Union, under Agenda 63’s call to action, has placed emphasis on science and engineering education by stating:

We hereby adopt Agenda 2063, as a collective vision and roadmap for the next fifty years and therefore commit to speed-up actions to catalyze education and skills revolution and actively promote science, technology, research and innovation, to build knowledge, human capital, capabilities and skills to drive innovations and for the African century:

  • Strengthen technical and vocational education and training through scaled-up investments, establishment of a pool of high-quality TVET centres across Africa, foster greater links with industry and alignment to labour markets, with a view to improve the skills profile, employability and entrepreneurship of especially youth and women, and closing the skills gap across the continent;
  • Build and expand an African knowledge society through transformation and investments in universities, science, technology, research and innovation; and through the harmonization of education standards and mutual recognition of academic and professional qualifications;
  • Establish an African Accreditation Agency to develop and monitor educational quality standards, with a view to expanding student and academic mobility across the continent”Source: Agenda 63 – The Africa we want – http://www.un.org/en/africa/osaa/pdf/au/agenda2063.pdf

To accomplish the above laudable actions will require systems that will foster close collaboration between engineering faculties and industry. The Education Partnerships in Africa (EPA) Project in Zambia provides a model of how this could be achieved. The EPA project was initially funded by the British Government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and aimed to develop employability, entrepreneurship and skills for local economies. Central to EPA was the engagement of potential employers, business, social enterprise, and other organisations. This programme has been very successful and received support from local and international companies operating in Zambia such as Copperbelt Energy Corporation (CEC), ZESCO, Lunsemfwa Hydro, MTN, Huawei, Lafarge and ABB to name but a few. All these companies have coalesced around the idea and taken an interest in the quality of graduates produced by the University of Zambia and the Copperbelt University. Many of these companies are represented on the faculty advisory boards playing a crucial role in guiding the university programmes to ensure they are relevant to the industry. Projects worth over US$3.5 million have been funded including construction of a demonstration substation at the University of Zambia campus.

Of particular note is ABB’s support for the EPA model – (“ABB to Support Zambia’s Electrical Engineering Education”)

The support from ABB commenced at the end of 2015, when Ulrich Spiesshofer, CEO, ABB, visited the country and signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Zambia (UNZA) in Lusaka, which provided for the participation of The Copperbelt University in Kitwe. The support has three components. First, as part of the programme, two students each year will undertake a two-year international trainee programme with ABB after completing their bachelor’s degree. On completion of the training programme, the graduates will return to Zambia and could teach at the universities or work within the power sector in Zambia. The second component of the ABB support will see the existing substation that is used for training at the UNZA being upgraded during 2017 to include new technology from ABB, such as disconnecting circuit breakers and a substation automation system. The substation was originally set up by the CEC, a partner in the EPA programme, a perfect example of cooperation between public and private sector entities.
The third component involves support with curricula reviews to incorporate topics such as micro-grids, renewables and energy efficiency.

This €1.2 million ABB project is co-financed by the German development finance institution DEG – Deutsche Investitions- und Entwicklungsgesellschaft mbH with funds from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development’s develoPPP.de program (http://www.developpp.de/en) targeting private companies that invest in developing and emerging countries.

The EPA project is coordinated by the University of Manchester under a memorandum of understanding between the Universities of Manchester and Zambia, demonstrating North-South cooperation.

Drawing on the experience of the education partnership in Africa project, below are some recommendations that I believe will enhance the quality and relevance of engineering education in Africa:

Ø Engineering faculties must forge linkages with local and international engineering firms and stakeholders in the education of engineers.

Ø Engineering faculties must establish vibrant industry advisory boards. This is important to ensure timely feedback from industry on the relevance and quality of engineering education. This can also lead to support in funding laboratory and other infrastructure investments as well as projects and student internships.

Ø Engineering curricula must be reviewed and enhanced to include elements of entrepreneurship and include aspects of engineering training by providing opportunities for skills and attitude development ensuring that graduates acquire minimum skills to be employed or indeed to work for themselves.

Ø Ensure robust quality assurance systems and processes which must be periodically validated through accreditation of the engineering programmes by local, regional or international Accreditation bodies as the case may be. Due to the high population growth, there is inevitably high demand for education. Because governments are unable to meet the demand for school, college and university places, the private sector is filling the gap.  While this is a welcome development, it is important to provide clear governance structures as well as a robust regulatory framework to avoid the danger of poor quality worthless education being provided by incompetent private sector players.

Ø Where the traditional engineering education models persist, it is essential to establish strong links between industry and local universities to ensure all graduates have the opportunity to spend at least two years of practical training in industry after graduation. This might require the development of incentive schemes to attract industry to take on engineering interns.

Ø Develop/ support Professional Engineering Institutions. Professional Institutions have an important regulatory role to play including accreditation of engineering degree programmes. International professional organisations are keen to support development and strengthening of local professional institutions.  The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (IEEE) through its Ad Hoc Committee on Activities in Africa is supporting engineering workforce development in Africa and aims to work with local professional institutions to accomplish this objective. (https://www.ieee.org/about/corporate/ad_hoc/2016_ad_hoc.pdf)

I would like to conclude by drawing attention to a disturbing trend in many African countries and indeed other parts of the world where the status and esteem of engineering and teaching professions have been steadily declining. Because of the seemingly low value placed on engineers and educators by society, the most talented young people are not being attracted to these key professions due to poor pay and conditions of service. If Africa is to develop, we must re-establish the value of engineering and teaching professions and reward them appropriately. Engineering education accompanied by appropriate training seamless blended into the education process is what Africa needs to underpin sustainable development. Industry and engineering faculties must come together to achieve this, supported by robust governance and regulatory structures.

Written by

Dr Mutale is a Reader and Director of Social Responsibility in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Prior to joining The University of Manchester in 2002, Dr Mutale spent over 15 years in the electric utility industry in Zambia where his last post was Director of Engineering Development at ZESCO, the Zambian National Utility. He is a founding member of the Zambia Renewable Energy Agency, for which he is the current Chairman. He also chairs the IEEE Working Group on Sustainable Energy Systems for Developing Communities and is a member of the CIGRE Advisory Group on Rural Electrification. He is also the Director of the Education Partnerships in Africa Project in Zambia.