Recently, U.S. News & World Report posted a ranking of the top Engineering schools based on peer reviews, total research expenditures, student-faculty ratio, notable alumni and several other aspects. Although the list was focused on schools in United States, another list, 2014 Global Universities for Engineering ranked universities worldwide.

 

The top universities were the best due to their production of quality research on various topics such as aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, their lab facilities and such. Different universities around the world, like Malaysia, Norway and others made it on the list, however according to the list, universities in Africa are still not up to par in terms of quality of engineering education. This deduction stems from the fact that not a single African university made it in the top 100 engineering university list. The top ten are as follows:

#1 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
United States Cambridge, Massachusetts

#2 Tsinghua University
China Beijing

#3 University of California–Berkeley
United States Berkeley, California

#4 Stanford University
United States Stanford, California

#5 Nanyang Technological University
Singapore

#6 Georgia Institute of Technology
United States Atlanta, Georgia

#7 National University of Singapore
Singapore

#8 Zhejiang University
China Hangzhou, Zhejiang

#9 Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Hong Kong Kowloon, Hong Kong

# 10 Harbin Institute of Technology
China Harbin, Heilongjiang

This list serves as an indication as to why so many young African students seek engineering education abroad, and also points out at what is missing in engineering universities in Africa.

There are a few things that most top engineering schools have in common, innovation over marks. From high school, students in institutions all over Africa are forced to believe that grades/marks matter over anything else. This is evident in such programs like the 8-4-4 education system in Kenya where test scores are vital and the benchmark of greatness. Moreover, the consistent advertisement of top scorer in newspapers solidifies this idea. That basically, if you have low scores, you are not smart. In reality, however, test scores do not reflect inventiveness, creativity, and overall greatness of a person; this is especially true in engineering schools where inventiveness and ideas should take precedent over exam scores. Ultimately pressure for good grades often leads to cheating, stress and a general lack of innovation. As much as grades do indeed matter, the focus should be more on research and development of innovation and ideas.

There are myriad reasons as to why universities in the United States and China far surpass those in most other countries, especially in Africa. Most schools in the United States stress on science fairs in high school, which offers student opportunities for college consideration. Top level of science competition, like the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) not only provides encouragement for future engineers, but it can offer prizes and scholarships of up to $114,500 which is a motivator. There is a scourge of these fairs across the United States, and the country gets to show off its inventive generation to the point where now engineering is seen as something ‘cool’ as illustrated by the fact that MIT is now the top university in the US. There is still a general lack of interest in engineering in Kenya and many other countries in Africa, schools have not made it a fun subject yet, there are not enough fairs and platforms for student to give scientific exhibitions. In addition, China molds students in accordance to what the country needs, so the local economy and development is its priority, hence, the importance of quality education in engineering.

Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) is a public university in Nairobi and is considered to be the best engineering school in Kenya. It does try to engage students in innovation development with their JKUAT Tech Expo. The expo is held annually and gives students a chance to showcase their projects to industries and stakeholders. Still, the exhibition is for all institutions of higher learning, and as much as this is a good thing, more of these fairs are needed. These sorts of fairs are the gateway into tapping into young African’s minds without the restriction of grades. If, greater importance was to be placed on creativity and creating world changing innovations then without doubt, the engineering field would blossom in Africa.

In addition, time and expenditures on research activity is vital for university success. As much as students’ inventiveness is critical to the success and caliber of a university, its staff also contribute to the university’s success. For example, the higher the number of faculty oriented towards research and the higher the number of either government or another institution funded research projects undertaken by students and staff is a mark of an excellent university. While JKUAT does have strong research interest in areas of biotechnology and engineering, the nation is yet to witness groundbreaking research to propel the university into a world class university. It is a fact that universities that are more research oriented produce better students, better faculty. A good example is Harvard University, an Ivy League research university that has managed to produce 21 Nobel Prize laureates and most of them related to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects.

Ultimately, there are a few things that shape an elite university; talented teachers, researchers, students, freedom and leadership within the university. Thus a school with notable alumni in that certain field is an encouragement for students. Unfortunately, for many African engineering schools, notable alumni leave the continent to pursue their dreams abroad, which is not very heartening for students. Moreover, since its inception in 1994 JKUAT has produced very few notable alumni, especially in the field of engineering.

Becoming a world class university is tough, especially in terms of science and technology. The process requires a larger budget and sufficient funding from different organization to establish world class labs and research centers. In fact most of the world’s elite institutions began as small colleges at one time, however with leadership, innovation and most importantly its alumni they grew into places of envy. Thus, it is important for engineering universities in Africa to do the same, develop and grow their students, if it is by employing more teachers to create more focus on students or by changing their curriculum to create a more practical approach to learning, then steps should be taken.

The bottom line is that the quality of university education, the quality of students in a country is a reflection of that country itself. Most world class universities don’t get their title from self-declaration; they are recognized and admired by the outside world. Thus, for a country that is building itself, the goal of establishing an elite world class university especially for engineering is worthwhile.

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