A few weeks ago, it was reported that the Engineering Registration Board (ERB) had refused to recognise degrees being offered by several universities in Kenya.
The reasons advanced for this decision related to the teaching and quality of those courses. While several universities were reported to have challenged the assertions by the board, the incident raised an important issue that requires our focus as a nation, and that relates to human resource capacity and availability in the country.
With the discoveries and the ongoing explorations for oil and minerals, Kenya has to be prepared to manage the extractive industry.
A lot of the discussions and preparations have focused on appropriate laws, institutions and attracting investors so as to access capital. These are important priorities for the sector.
However, a typical complaint in most countries that have a developed extractive industry is the lack of sufficient employment opportunities for the local communities and the disproportionate numbers of expatriates in higher echelons of companies in the industry.
One of the courses that the ERB was reported to have raised issues with was Mining and Mineral Resources Engineering. The reported response from the university was that it was hiring lecturers from several foreign countries to teach the course.
While this may be a short-term solution to the lack of qualified teachers to train future engineers, it belies a bigger problem. It speaks to the level of preparedness and responsiveness of the country’s training curriculum over the years to new and emerging sectors.
The Vision 2030 development blueprint places a high premium on education, research and training in helping the country to achieve its stated target of being a middle income industrialised country.
How then can we prioritise education in the same vision document that recognises the extractive industry without sufficient attention to the state of the education and training for the sector?
Granted, there is an initiative involving partnership between the government and universities with some donor support to offer degree courses relevant to several aspects of the extractive industry.
While this is commendable, the reported problems in Engineering courses, including mining engineering shows that the focus should not just be on curriculum development and offering of the degrees but also on those to teach the courses. This is not a problem unique to the engineering field.
If the stated aim of Vision 2030 is to be realised, the country needs to examine the priorities it puts on education and training.
We must deliberately ensure that we develop human capacity in a wide range of sectors. The process must be deliberate. It requires greater links between Government, Universities and Industry.
The process of thinking about the curriculum should be based on clear national priorities and targets. Industry links with the universities will also help to ensure that teaching delivers to industry needs and that industry taps onto knowledge from learning institutions.
As opposed to proceeding in the current ad hoc arrangements, the relevant government department should carry out a comprehensive assessment of the human resource needs and map these against available and relevant human resources in the country.
This should be accompanied with an education and training strategy. Such a strategy needs to help in producing appropriate skills for industry at all levels. Skills are required at several levels ranging from engineers, accountants, geologists, lawyers amongst others.
Training should, however, not be geared towards university producing only university graduates. The country also requires artisans.
Conversion of polytechnics to universities should, consequently, be avoided unless alternative technical institutions are created. To convert such institutions denies the country institutions for training artisans and technicians.
The current initiative by government to establish an institution to co-ordinate technical education and vocational training in Kenya is a welcome and laudable move.
In, sum, therefore, as we debate the teaching of Engineering, let us learn from this incident and prioritise investment in planning for and implementing a robust plan for education and training human resources focused on the country’s development priorities including the extractive industry.
Dr Odote is a senior lecturer, Centre For Advanced Studies in Environmental Law and Policy, University of Nairobi.