An article regarding the report by the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA), published in Engineering News recently, is of great concern. As a person who was a faculty member at the University of Pretoria (UP) for 20 years, until August 2011, I am very concerned. When a number of colleagues and I resigned as a result of the growth of our consulting company, the design section within the mechanical engineering department at the university collapsed completely.
I have a few comments to make on the ECSA article:
• The number quoted is totally unrealistic. Engineering entails practically orientated training and the facilities in this country are just not enough to accommodate this number of students. For the 20 years I was in academia, the debate regarding funding was ongoing and, during my last year at UP, the student numbers increased by almost 12%, while the budget was cut by close to 10%. How is this ever going to change?
• We are seriously heading for a disaster. Currently, in South Africa, there are two professors left in the design field after my resignation. I am by far the youngest and with the most industry experience. The other two are at Maties and Ikeys and will be retiring in the next year – and there will be no design professor in this country. Design, which is, surely, the most fundamental course for mechanical engineers and must account for 17% of the curriculum, according to ECSA, is currently taught at UP by youngsters who are appointed lectures but are actually postgraduate students and have no design experience. UP is only an example and the same thing is happening at other institutions.
• At UP, the senior secretary earns more than a lecturer. How do we expect to get good people in academic positions? The salary of a full professor is typically a third of the salaries of his counterparts in industry.
• How do you teach an engineering subject, especially something like design, where you need to have tutorial sessions, to 400 students in one session?
• If you look at the qualifications of the staff members of the department of mechanical engineering at UP (lecturers, senior lecturers, and so on) and at their age, serious questions arise regarding engineering education in the future. I am using UP as an example – the same situation prevails at other institutions in this country.
Where are we headed? Will we be producing high-quality engineers in three to four years? As consulting engineers, we are already experiencing problems in this regard on a daily basis.
Dr Danie Burger, PrEng, PhD (Mech), GCC