The Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) is preparing for a routine assessment by the International Engineering Alliance (IEA) for continued recognition as a signatory of the Dublin and Sydney accords, which will ensure that ECSA-accredited new engineering technology and technician qualifications are recognised by the signatories of the accords.
An audit, commissioned by the IEA to assess all ECSA’s policies and systems, and ensure that these are followed when accrediting institutions, will be carried out by a team of international experts from Dublin and Sydney Accord countries next year.
“Success in this assessment will ensure that the qualifications of South African engineering professionals will be recognised for equivalence in the accord signatory countries, making mobility of our engineers to other countries easier. It will also lend credence to ECSA’s status as one of the leading engineering councils globally,” says ECSA policy development and standards generation executive manager John Cato.
ECSA is a statutory professional body mandated by the Engineering Profession Act No 42 of 2000 to regulate the engineering profession through the registration of competent engineering practitioners. The council works with the Council on Higher Education (CHE) and the South African Qualifications Authority to set standards for engineering education and oversee the accreditation of institutions of higher learning that offer engineering qualifications.
In October 2014, the revised higher education subframework was published as part of a government programme to create an integrated National Qualifications Framework (NQF), eliminating the parallel education qualifications from technical vocational education and training (TVET) colleges and university programmes that had previously existed.
Working with universities and the CHE, ECSA has been engaged in a process of ensuring that local engineering qualifications are aligned to the revised higher education qualifications subframework and internationally compatible. Cato says these qualification standards are meant to guide higher education providers in developing the qualifications they wish to offer students.
To date, ECSA has completed nine education standards, which include standards for a higher certificate in engineering, advanced certificates in engineering practice and engineering, diplomas in engineering and engineering technology, an advanced diploma, bachelor’s degrees in engineering and engineering technology and an honours degree in engineering technology.
Cato notes that quality assurance is the mainstay of creating public confidence in the new engineering qualification types. Ensuring confidence in ECSA’s authority regarding such quality assurance is the IEA’s confirmation of ECSA’s Washington Accord Signatory Status last year for a further six years.
New Framework Meets Local Needs
Cato explains that the introduction of the new higher education qualifications subframework seeks to establish qualification types that are responsive to South Africa’s particular realities by strengthening the ability of the NQF to respond to the changing skills and knowledge needs of the economy and society.
He points out that there is a “gross misalignment” between the skills produced by the higher education system and the needs of the South African economy, leading to a critical labour demand and supply mismatch.
“Historically, it was impossible for a student who has gone to a TVET college to enter the university system to gain a recognised qualification; however, through the introduction of recognition of prior learning, these constraints have been lifted and flexibility has been introduced to enable students to further progress their training.”
Cato further notes that the separation of TVET and university qualifications in the past has also limited public- and private-education providers from offering a diversified mix of relevant education programmes at different levels of the NQF. Under the new framework, education providers can design programmes and determine their curriculum goals in accordance with the labour market skills demands. The system also caters for students who wish to study towards postgraduate academic qualifications by enabling universities to offer recognised professional master’s and professional PhD degrees.
Cato stresses that the introduction of one coordinated qualification structure is a milestone for the engineering profession, as it presents an opportunity for setting engineering education standards, the integrity of which is incontrovertible.
Developing a standard involves input from engineering experts, such as leading South African academics and registered industry experts, using guidelines provided by the IEA and South African laws, he explains. The draft standard is then assessed by ECSA’s Policy Development and Standards Generating Committee, which must provide approval of the standard for ratification by ECSA’s council.
The CHE is legally the primary authority in the country regarding the development of standards; however, Cato highlights that ECSA’s arrangement with the CHE ensures that the critical requirements for ECSA are incorporated in the CHE to ensure that, when students graduate from universities, their qualifications meet the requirements for ECSA registration. The CHE has a formal process to approve standards for institutions, which includes consultation with ECSA, Engineering deans and the public, after which approval is granted for institutions to use those standards to develop the curriculum accordingly.
“In the past, there was tension between the requirements of the CHE and those of the professional bodies governing the engineering sector. The revised framework ensures better coordination between these two parties in terms of education standards and quality assurance processes, ensuring coherence in the system, while granting students multiple pathways to progress their training,” he concludes.