Africa sharpens engineers' skills

June 5, 1998


Universities in sub-Saharan Africa must markedly improve the standard of engineering and technical education if the region is to move beyond the stage of assembling products and achieve industrial growth, delegates attending a think tank in Nairobi heard.

Under the auspices of Unesco, deans of engineering from nine universities in eastern and central Africa met to discuss the introduction of revised engineering degree programmes.

The majority of existing engineering degrees imitate courses developed outside Africa and fail to focus on local needs. According to Unesco, a lack of adequate external assessment and accreditation has led to "academic in-breeding" and falling standards in both the engineering and medical professions in the continent.

The conference resolved that a three-model programme should be introduced into more than 100 colleges, all members of the Association of African Universities.

Conference chairman, Kosonike Koso-Thomas, said: "We conceptualised engineering models that must eventually place African countries among the group of nations with the highest technological competence."

However, it was agreed that it would be too traumatic for employers of engineering graduates if existing programmes were scrapped completely. Instead, the Association of African Universities was mandated to urge members to revise the course content of existing degrees to focus on local needs. To date, few universities have taken this step.

"Many programmes are still unattractive copies that have failed to address common problems in the continent," Unesco science and technology specialist J. M. Massaquoi said.

But the experts agreed that it was not in Africa's interest to deny talented students degree courses that are in the mainstream of global technological advancement.

The Nairobi workshop, attended by deans from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, devised two new degree models: a regional model designed for mature students with a technical diploma education; and an international model for the most gifted students intending to pursue postgraduate studies outside Africa.

The existing four-year degree programme would be retained for candidates with 12 years of primary and secondary education. During the first year of this revised course, students would study basic sciences, general engineering, mathematics and communications skills. They would then pursue core engineering courses leading to a BSc.

The new five-year regional BTech programme would incorporate a mixture of bridging courses, supervised practicals, basic and professional engineering courses and industrial attachment.

The third and most demanding programme, which would lead to an engineering masters, would give students the technical skills to compete at an international level and is intended to ensure that African universities are at the cutting edge of technological development. Graduates would be given scholarships to study abroad.

Unesco said it would aid the AAU and the African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions to become accreditation bodies for the new programmes.

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