The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) wants to increase South Africa’s engineering graduate output from the 7 888 students recorded in 2008 to 15 000 students a year by 2014.
However, Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) CEO Dr Oswald Franks indicates that while tertiary institutions may have marginally increased their first-year intake of engineering students since 2008, the capacity of these institutions in respect of the number of engineering students they can accommodate has not increased substantially.
According to ECSA, an engineering professional in South Africa may either be an engineer who has completed a four-year degree at a university, a technician who has earned a three-year national diploma, or a technologist who has gained a four-year qualification at a university of technology.
“The challenge is to achieve the growth government wants using the same number of facilities we have now,” says Franks.
He says current throughput numbers at tertiary level highlight the problems that already exist at these institutions, even without the push to grow the scale of admission.
Currently, about 54% of students complete their four-year engineering degree in four to five years.
“The rest take longer,” says Franks. “And 27% do not complete their studies at all.”
To make matters worse, engineering skills are also mobile, with 15 000 to 20 000 South African engineering professionals working outside South Africa, compared with a total local registry of 38 000 professionals.
“Our qualifications are on a par with the rest of the world. We are a signatory to the Sydney, Washington and Dublin accords in terms of engineering qualifications,” says Franks.
With ECSA assuring the quality of engineering programmes at tertiary institutions, the big concern is, therefore, to increase the graduate output from the system.
Franks notes that South Africa is severely underengineered, with 2005 figures indicating that there is one engineer for every 3 166 people in South Africa, compared with one for every 455 people in Australia, one for every 311 people in the UK, one for 681 people in Chile and one for every 227 people in Brazil.
He notes, however, that the South African drive to increase numbers is bound to fail if more resources are not allocated to existing engineering faculties.
“Universities can’t have staff vacancies. Engineering facilities are already stretched.”
In fact, through a research study, ECSA has identified seven levers of change that could contribute to attaining an output of 15 000 graduates a year.
The first would be to improve the talent pipeline from schools into universities, followed by selecting suitable students for the qualifications involved and providing appropriate student support, including financial support and tertiary study socialisation.
A fourth lever of change would be to ensurethat South Africa’s engineering curriculum remains relevant and responsive to a changing world, with sufficient and correctly staffed faculties also important. Funding for tertiary institutions is also pivotal to success.
However, that said, the key to increasing the success rate could potentially be through strengthening the core teaching and learning activities at tertiary institutions, notes Franks.
“We need staff who can teach and who can teach with passion, care and enthusiasm.
“We also need to encourage the development, recognition and rewarding of teaching expertise in engineering.”
Franks says ECSA has already presented its research findings to the DHET.
“Together, we are planning a national summit on engineering education later this year, where we will focus on how we can improve the system’s success rate.
We need everyone to act in concert. It is a multi-actor challenge, and we simply have to succeed.”
Franks adds that, in producing the report, ECSA, for the first time, stepped outside its traditional legal mandate of regulating the engineering sector.
“We still have to do this, yes, but we also want to position ourselves to be more relevant to South Africa and its challenges. We want the engineering profession to make a positive contribution to the country.”
The ECSA research report, titled ‘Improving Throughput in the Engineering Bachelors Degree’, can be found at http://www.ecsa.co.za/documents/091211_ECSA_Throughput_Report.pdf