Booker Ngesa had an interview with Prof. Laila Abubakar on the State of Engineering Education in Kenya. Booker is a Mechanical Engineer and currently the Editorial Director of Kenya Engineer Magazine; he also serves as the secretary for the Editorial Board. Prof. Abubakar is the Vice Chancellor of Technical University of Kenya; this interview was transcribed by Mercy Nduati. 

Professor Laila Abubakar has an academic and professional background in biochemistry and is currently the Vice Chancellor, Technical University of Mombasa. She is an active researcher, and has won several research grants and awards; she has maintained an active academic and professional link with several universities and organizations in the region.

‘My passion is to demystify Engineering and this thing of saying science subjects are hard, women cannot do science subjects, these are myths and stereotypes that need to be demystified.’  Prof. Laila Abubakar Vice Chancellor, TUM 

Booker:
It’s a pleasure to be in Mombasa, specifically at the University and particularly at this time that you have gotten the Engineering Board accreditation, so who is Prof. Abubakar?

Laila
Thank you and you are welcome; I do hope you are enjoying the hospitality of the Coastal region.

Booker
Of course, very much

Laila
I got a background in biochemistry from the University of Nairobi and I’m passionate about Sciences, engineering being one of them 

Booker
Congratulations! To be a Vice Chancellor is no mean achievement, could you please share with our readers your vision for the university

Laila
So, from our historical perspective, our niche is on engineering, even when we were a Polytechnic before we became a University. So we want to be a centre of excellence for engineering education in Kenya and if we are to achieve our Vision 2030, the technical subjects especially in the area of Engineering, should be our focus and we at Technical University of Mombasa, we hope, actually, to be part of that Vision for our country.

Booker   
What are certain strategic objectives that Technical University of Mombasa has put in place as a trainer for engineers?

Laila
Well, our main objectives as TUM is to actually offer opportunities, for access to education and this education should be technical, entrepreneurship as  well as scientific. We also want to inculcate the culture of research and innovation.

Booker
Would you then comment about the status of engineering education in Kenya and how TUM is taking advantage of it?

Laila
Okay. We in Kenya, in particular and Africa as a whole, we have made  tremendous strides regarding engineering education, indeed in both theory and practice, especially now with the issues of oil and  gas  discoveries and all this talk of industrialization , engineering training is at the centre  of it.
 
Booker
What’s so unique about your institution?

Laila
Booker… look, our Country is strategically placed not only because of our skills and our education system but also our emphasis on engineering training. The location of our university is quite strategic, we are at the Kenyan coast and we would like to utilize this advantage to be a respected centre for Marine engineering.

We want to be competitive not just   in Africa but globally. In Ghana, for instance they actually have a big institution on maritime and marine engineering courses. So why can’t we do the same in the Eastern side of Africa?  We do not have such a facility apart from Institute of Marine Services in Dar es Salaam, but we, really in Eastern Africa, we do not have such and we are strategically positioned to offer that kind of training.

Booker
Thank you, you know Prof. that there has been a discussion going on about Commission of University Education and Engineers Board of Kenya, especially in determination of what should be consumed in class and the popular opinion that there should be harmonization of the two bodies, so what is your take on it?

Laila
I think that is not only for EBK and I’m happy you brought this, for some of us who are at the Universities, we seem to be bombarded with all kind of regulatory bodies who want to accredit programs. My take would be that the CUE should first accredit university programmes under the University Act and it should involve the regulatory bodies during the accreditation process.

For instance, if it is an engineering program, CUE doesn’t know head or tail what an engineering programme should entail. Thus, they should actually engage those regulatory bodies whenever they are accrediting these programmes. CUE should harmonize the process in a way that it is synchronized and work together.

Booker
Ok but…

Laila
Hold on a minute, for example if it’s a medical lab or technologist courses then they need to involve that regulatory board, rather than us having two bodies, one body has powers to accredit programs and when you go to a regulatory body it doesn’t accredit for example. So you are in a quagmire and put one at crossroads because you don’t know who to believe. I have no problems with regulatory bodies regulating curriculums but what am trying to say is that they should be together, really in sync, like work together with CUE.

Booker
These challenges notwithstanding, you are now accredited by the board, two years ago when I came here and talked to your students, the situation was different. Today when I met the students they were happy and they told me that now they know the direction where the university is going. I would like you to comment on how the accreditation has made it easier for you to govern and what do you think would have been done better.

Laila
It is true that while I came here it was the first challenge I came to realize, that they were offering engineering programmes that haven’t been accredited and recognized by EBK. Then there was a story that was going round about on what was the problem or should I say the elephant in the room, was really EBK. You know every time we hear about EBK and how ruthless they were and so for forth. All I kept asking myself, what is it about EBK that they just don’t like TUM and there was a lot of politics which I wouldn’t want to go into. I was hearing all the bad things about the EBK.

Then I just decided to take another approach of why they aren’t accrediting the programmes. So I decided to engage them and write to them to seek appointments with them and I’m also happy that the Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Education at that time, Prof. Kaimenyi played a critical role in bringing us together, the stakeholders. We then started talking to each other rather than at each other. That is when we arranged a meeting to go to EBK offices. Upon our return, we started the route to comply by having our lectures to start the registration with the board, getting the thematic leaders, really taking an audit of our resources. That’s what made us achieve thus far.

The board was actually  very clear, they told us that we need to engage professors, registered engineers because we can’t have technologists teaching someone to be an engineer, you know. Then they said that inasmuch as they don’t have a problem with our facilities, the problem is capacity building. So I embarked on that capacity building and I actually prioritized on the training of our staff that they go and do course studies in engineering and I actually worked on different thematic areas. While we were doing that we started engaging professional engineers to come and teach our students. So there was a disconnect or misconception on what the Board was asking us to do, what we were required to do and expectations of the Board.

What I used to do because there were cases where people would think that once you are a graduate engineer, it is enough, but to EBK, you have to be a registered engineer.  Here people assumed that even if they had masters with a first degree in engineering, then they are able to teach and be recognized by EBK. This landed us into problems because somebody could be having a PhD but he is only a graduate engineer so he doesn’t qualify to teach.

 As I said once we started engaging and talking to EBK, we realized our incapacities and started working on them so as to get people who are required and then we started working on our curriculum since the one we were using was inherited from Jomo Kenyatta University. Also to become a fully fledged university, we had to customize our curriculum so that it depicts our vision so that it could be different from JKUAT curriculum.

Once we embarked to do that and EBK became very supportive, because now it was like we were listening to them and what they want: whenever I could get a CV from someone, I would now send it to EBK and ask the registrar if he is registered with the board before he gets an appointment letter. So you see that helped a lot and I’m happy that we were able to get full support and they really supported us and they took us through certain steps. They even gave us a whole data on the engineers or people we could engage.

Booker
A few weeks ago the president signed the technical and technologists, how will it impact on your programmes?

Laila
Actually what I know is that during the ERB time there was a provision for technicians and technologists. When now the Act was changed and it became Engineer’s Board of Kenya, I think there must have been a mistake or I don’t know it was removed or either it was an oversight on their part so it was actually deleted. These technicians and technologists have to belong somewhere. So to me the board is welcome. I remember that there was a time EBK said they were going to review the Act so as to include the technicians and technologists. Maybe it took time and longer and before this bill came into place.  We were somehow following it up because we have so many people who are technicians and technologists. Currently, I don’t see a problem there because if you are a technicians or technologists you get registered by this board. So personally there is no conflict. 

Booker
In the recent past, we have seen technical colleges turned into fully fledged universities. What is your comment? Is it good or bad for the country?

Laila
It is both good and bad. It is good in the sense that in Mombasa where we didn’t have a University,  maybe the government saw that it may not afford to build a new university and thought of using the existing infrastructure to come up with a university. That is good but on the other hand, when now if you keep removing all polytechnics, youth polytechnics, technical training institutions at the county or village level, you will end up creating a gap because these polytechnics were helping us to absorb those people who were not going to the university.  There is really a need for balance.

We still need the technical training institutions as much as we need universities.  But not everybody can go to a university, let me put it that way.  These technical and vocational institutions are actually very important if we are to achieve Vision 2030, we need competency based training. I remember in the old times, we used to do A levels, so if you don’t make it to go to form four, five or six, you go to a Technical Training Institute or middle level.

But when you remove them, you end up having people who have no training and they can neither create jobs nor get jobs. That is why I said it is good and bad at the same time.

Booker
I know you had answered this in terms of the CS bringing together the stakeholders but there was a Program Accreditation Committee started by government, have you been part of it and do you think it has been useful.

Laila
Yes,   we have been part of it. All Vice Chancellors were invited. As I said, these issues were raised again and again and the last time we met, the regulatory bodies were invited. The ministry, VC’s and principals were there so as to find a way forward. As universities we don’t want to be bombarded today. We want to deal with one accreditation body and as I said that those accreditation bodies, it should be now that the Commission for University Education should be dealing with those accreditation bodies.

So when it is time for inspection, we don’t want today the regulatory body is coming and then a team of CUE comes to accredit an engineering program, really EBK should be part of CUE team.

I think Booker that is the way it should be harmonized.

Booker
What is the future of engineering education at TUM?

Laila
The future of engineering education at Technical University of Mombasa is very bright.  We have started and right now our three programmes have been accredited that is electrical and electronics, civil and mechanical engineering. But we also have medical engineering and we are actually the first university to start the medical engineering program in Kenya. So we shouldn’t be sleeping we need to take it forward because we have been offering diploma courses in medical engineering for a long time.

It is high time we embark on the degree which we have already started and have given EBK our curriculum.

Then there is the issue of marine engineering as I said our proximity to the ocean is something, this is a natural resource that nobody can take it from us. So we also need to have that center of excellence in marine engineering, really if we can’t have the marine engineering course in Mombasa where else can we have it?

Booker
(Laughs)…. Nowhere

Laila
Again our curriculums have been sent to Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA). And we have had diploma courses in marine engineering for a long time as well as nautical sciences. So now, what we are starting are degree courses in marine engineering and nautical sciences. So I’m seeing a very bright future.

Booker
Engineering courses are mostly male dominated ….

Laila
By default should I say?

Booker
They have improved; when I was in college we had only three ladies in a class of over seventy

Laila
That’s what I’m saying, sometime it’s by default… and so we need to demystify it and this thing of saying science subjects are hard, women cannot do science subject

Booker
There is nothing like that

Laila
There is nothing like that they say what a man can do a woman can do better
(Laughs)

Booker
 … It’s true

Laila
Thank you Booker, Thank you very much for finding time to come, you are welcome and we will be inviting you soon when we are getting our certification
   
Booker
Thank you very much for meeting me and I will be honored to attend the ceremony

                       

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