Prof. Fred Otieno, Vice Chancellor MMUST speaks to Kenya Engineer on the state of Engineering Education in Kenya 

“..instead of us shunning out graduates who are constantly looking for jobs and so forth. We want them to be innovators. We want them to be people who create wealth and who can stimulate the industrial revolution in this country” Prof. Otieno
Thank you for your invitation, I would like to talk to you about the State of Engineering Education generally in Kenya and specifically Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology. Please tell our readers about yourself?

Thank you and you are welcome to Kakamega anytime. Booker, I graduated from the University of Nairobi with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Civil Engineering. I hold a Masters and PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of New Castle. In 1999 I did my MBA Degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa.

And yes I do have industrial experience; I worked for Gordon Malvin & Partners Consulting Engineers. I’m also a registered professional engineer with the board and a member of the Institution of Engineers of Kenya.

It’s only until 1990 that I joined academia; I have not only been doing research, teaching and management but also been doing a lot of engineering consultancies. I have a global experience, before my current assignment as the Vice Chancellor of this university I was a deputy vice chancellor in South Africa. Prior to that, I was the Head of Department of Civil Engineering and Professor of Civil Engineering at Durban Westville University.

I have served as a director of very high level organizations; I have been a Non-Executive Director of the South African National Roads Agency. I have also been a board member at Rand Water which is the largest water utility in Africa, where I chaired their Risk Committee.

I have indeed consulted for international agencies, Notably World Bank, World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF. World Bank in particular, I was a lead consultant in developing environmental action plans for arid and semi-arid districts in Kenya. I was responsible for Turkana, West Pokot and Baringo Districts and from 1991 to 1994 I was a consultant in the water sector reforms.

How has it been to be the Vice Chancellor of Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology?

Frankly speaking, I have enjoyed myself. Having been away in South Africa for just about 19 years, I feel a sense of belonging here, it’s time to give back to my country and serve the people of Kenya. I was educated by the taxpayer; you know we didn’t pay any fee, at all, right from primary to the university. I want to build a world class institution that’s my dream.

This journey has not been free from challenges; I have had quite turbulent moments. When I came here, especially in young institution, it takes some efforts to get things done.

We have instituted a major strategic plan 2015-2020. This is our guideline to success. We want to be competitive globally. We want to be strong in research and we got a desire to achieve financial stability. I have seen this institution rise to top 10 universities in Kenya. We have made tremendous efforts to improve the welfare of our students and to give them a perfect academic environment.

As a trainer of engineers, how have you performed?

You know my desire has been to build strong accredited programs which are competitive both nationally and internationally. We are right on track; we have seen our core courses accredited by the Engineers Board of Kenya.

With all the challenges, we are working to meet all of the board requirements and to mount more courses at undergraduate and post graduate level in our school of engineering. We got a lot in store; we want to build an engineering complex here at the university which we hope will be fully and properly equipped to provide state of the art engineering laboratories. As a university of science and technology, engineering is one of the programs we want to be identified with.

Secondly, we want to strength research and innovation. Instead of us, you know engineers are real the producers of wealth in any country, instead of us shunning out graduates who are constantly looking for jobs and so forth. We want them to be innovators. We want them to be people who create wealth and who can stimulate the industrial revolution in this country. We hope that we can make our students become entrepreneurs, researchers and innovation-oriented engineers, who can go out there and do things slightly differently.

Why has this not happened? Is it that we talk too much?

All these developed countries including United States, even Germany and all these other countries were where we are, not too long ago. It is about having the right people at the right places to drive this vision and it can happen. There is no reason why other countries, as we call them ‘Asian Tigers’ – South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and so forth, why they have made it and we cannot make it. There is no reason why we continue to be a consumer society while others move forward. There are a number of small things we believe need to be done and with the right people and focus and determination of our people, we believe we can achieve this.

“accreditation of engineering programs is a new thing in our country. When I was a student at the university there was no accreditation of engineering programs in this country and for many years. Even when I was a Lecturer, here in 1990, there was nothing like accreditation. It is something new we need to learn and build on the positives” Prof Otieno

Please comment on the state of engineering education in Kenya. With reference to
a.    Mounting of engineering degree programs,
b.    accreditation process ,
c.    Engineering training and
d.    Continuous Professional Development.

Thank you very much, Bwana Ngesa. First of all, my view and I think this view will be supported by many not only in Kenya but outside is that accreditation especially of engineering programs is a process. It cannot be a once off event. It is a process, it is a developmental process. It has to be done systematically, bearing in mind that nobody, no sane person would want to teach engineers who are out to practice and who do not have the necessary skills to practice as engineers, so that needs to be our starting point.

Secondly, accreditation should not be an ambush activity. It should not be an activity where you use as a weapon to ambush institutions. No, not at all. An accreditation should, first of all anybody who does accreditation should have the instrument upon which you are going to be measured against and this should be readily available and in good time and sent to you so you prepare accordingly, that is the first requirement. Once you have that, then you should have the opportunity to respond to that instrument and because it is a process. You need to have what I call a stage one which is provision accreditation. You come to an institution and you say you need to address, one, two, three, four and so forth then you give that institution time to address those issues.

For example, you come here and you want me to employ say registered engineers with Masters and PhD. You do not take six months to train somebody to a Masters Level or PhD in engineering. You then give that institution time, you tell them in the next five years when we come to accredit you we want to see such and such in place and every year you share with us the progress you have made towards the attainment of these specific requirements. That’s the way to go. That should be the approach. I think I am seeing a lot of positivity in everything that the Engineers Board of Kenya is doing in this regard, we do hope that positivity would continue to build and with time I believe we will all get it right. After all, accreditation of engineering programs is a new thing in our country. When I was a student at the university there was no accreditation of engineering programs in this country and for many years. Even when I was a Lecturer, here in 1990, there was nothing like accreditation. It is something new we need to learn and build on the positives.

According to you how should this issues of Commission of University Education (CUE) and Engineers Board of Kenya (EBK) be resolved, they seem to be working at cross purpose

That’s a very good and an important question.

You know Bwana Ngesa the universities act gives us autonomy, CUE also has its own autonomy and EBK has its own autonomy. These institutions  need to work in harmony  and if I had drawn my experience in South Africa, they need to work together to accomplish accreditation, because it is pointless, for example for CUE to come here and carry out their process of accreditation then a few months down the line, EBK comes and carries out its accreditation and now that we have technologies and technicians engineering body which have been introduced through an act, they will soon also have their own accreditation mechanism, God forbid they then come and do the accreditation and so forth. It is going to be messy. What needs to happen and what happens in Australia, in New Zealand, in the UK and in a number of other countries, is that the Commission for University Education or an equivalent of that will work with these other bodies a more centralized  accreditation process.

If they want to do it, there can be a combined visit where you have officers from CUE together with officers from EBK who come here and then they carry out a single accreditation. That is the right way to go about this and I do hope that with time we will see this happening and of course, each of these have their own way of methods, we respect those and we will stay within those boundaries but we hope that in the long run, there will be singular accreditation visits to these programs.

My own experience again tells me that we do not need to have this pulling and pushing between these two bodies again we are serving the same clients, we should be having mutual interests to ensure that we provide quality engineering education to our people so that they can in the minimum possible time they can become registered engineers and occupy the rightful places in the society.

Prof. Human resource being at the centre of your challenges, how is the engineering faculty coping, I’m sure if you advertise on the local dailies a position of a senior Lecturer, and list the requirements to a PhD holder and a registered engineer, you will get zero applicants

It is true you are quite right but you see if we are to pose a bit and ask the question, do we engineers need to have PhDs in order to be successful?

I think the answer would be an emphatic NO Worldwide. I do not think you are going to find this unless of course there are engineers who are moving more into research and innovation and cutting edge concepts a. So if you go to places like Japan where you have high end things or in the USA or Germany, I think you are going to find engineers wanting to get PhDs but in a country like Kenya, I am not surprised that not many engineers want to become PhD holders for a number of reasons: –

If you become a PhD holder in Kenya, you are most likely going to end up being a Lecturer at the university because we have very few organizations other than universities in Kenya and generally the developing World who would have the satisfaction of employing PhD holders in engineering. So that is the problem. I do not think necessarily we need so many PhD holders in engineering for us to succeed.  After all you need not to have Masters or PhD degrees to be registered as a professional engineer in Kenya or any other part of the World, your first Degree is what counts and that is all.

What we need to accept therefore is, in terms of who becomes a Lecturer, e.t.c., we need to accept that it may be necessary sometimes not to worry too much about somebody having a PhD because engineering is a practical profession. If I were to turn this question and ask you, would you like to employ someone who finished a Bsc Degree in Masinde Muliro, they went straight and did a Masters Degree, they went ahead and did a PhD Degree, would you like that person to be the one now teaching engineering which is a practical skill or would you rather have somebody who has maybe First Degree but with many years of industrial experience?

‘…..when I went to University of Nairobi in 1970s, many of my lecturers did not have PhD degrees. They did not and so many of the current senior engineers in Kenya would have been taught by people who did not have PhD degrees’

Of course I will go with the one with industrial experience.

But we are not trained to downplay or underrate the need to have PhD holders. No, no…You need in my view a combination of both. So there is room for people who may have just First Degree holders but with a lot of experience who can come and work at universities. That sadly is lacking.

I may want to share with you, when I went to University of Nairobi in 1970s, many of my lecturers did not have PhD degrees. They did not and so many of the current senior engineers in Kenya would have been taught by people who did not have PhD degrees. It is not just in Kenya, when I went to the UK, the person who was my Head of Department of Civil Engineering did not have a PhD. And many of the people who lectured me at my Masters and even those who was lecturing in under-graduates at the then University of Newcastle did not have PhDs. They were simply very well established hands on engineers who chose an academic career and I think if PhD was something that was mandatory and must be had before you could lecture then many of us who are lecturers and very many successful engineers Worldwide would not be where they are today.

I am appealing that there is need to moderate this and as we develop, we are in a developmental stage of our development in Kenya. We need to balance this and not kill the little we have achieved simply because we are obsessed with looking for certain paper qualifications which sometimes do not necessary meet all the practical requirements in terms of teaching our youngsters. A balance is necessary and I would appeal to my colleagues that we need to find a balance.

‘We cannot be training Mechanical Engineers on late machines which were used in the 50s and 60s when we are moving into an electro mechanical era.’

What are some of the engineering programs that you have mounted?

Thank you very much

We have three main engineering programs here. We have Bsc Degree in Civil and Structural Engineering, we have Bsc Degree in Electrical and Communication Engineering and we have Bsc Degree in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. Those are the three programs that we have and all of them have now been given provisional accreditation which is a good thing. We have been asked to attend to a number of things so that we will then invite Engineering Board of Kenya to come back and hopefully we will have met those requirements for full accreditation.

Moving forward, I think for now we are saying let us address all the issues in these three programs and then we would be able to scan the market and see what other programs that can blend and fit into these three programs that we may want to introduce. We have not thought about it loud enough but we have some ideas you know. There are areas for example like Mechatronics engineering, you know in terms of mechanical engineering, a lot of processes that used to be mechanical in nature have now become mechanical electrical in nature. So we need to also change with time. We cannot be training Mechanical Engineers on late machines which were used in the 50s and 60s when we are moving into an electro mechanical era.

One of the things I believe we are going to be looking at would be mechatronic engineering. The other area is around industrial engineering. We may seriously think of separating mechanical from industrial engineering, because industrial engineering is again moving more towards highly automated processes and so forth. Again that is an area we would want to look at in the coming days.

Finally in terms of electronics, you see we have electrical and communication engineering, but a lot of things are now becoming electronic and computing in nature. Another degree that we may want to look at could easily be one which combines electronics and computer engineering because you can see computers have literally taken over our lives by and large but those as I say will be having strategic break always for engineering faculty very soon where we want to invite players in the industry to come and help us in formulating what tomorrow’s engineering will look like and when we are ready we would like to invite you to come and share with you some of these ideas.

‘Yes, we are mindful that without research and innovation, the profession can die a slow death. And that we would not like to see happen’

Do you have any post graduate degree programs in engineering faculty?

Thank you very much.

We have Masters and PhDs programs in engineering at the university. We have been actively asking our lecturers and in that regard we have a number of adjunct professors because we realized that our capacity in terms of high level engineering skills is a little on the lower side. We have engaged a number of adjunct professors notably for example we have Prof. Masu who is a very strong professor of mechanical engineering at Vaal University in Johannesburg, we have Professor Fulo who is a very strong and highly respected power and telecommunication professor of engineering at University of KwaZulu-Natal. We have Professor Owour Meluka who is professor for mechanical and industrial engineering and Professor Maselo Odhiambo who is also a professor of telecommunications engineering. They are all adjunct professors.

Where we do not have these high research skills we are twinning with universities in the UK, South Africa, in the US and Australia to build capacity so that we are able to intensify our research and innovation efforts in the area of engineering and locally we have people like Professor Mahanu, Professor Ndiema, Professor Ong’or and myself a Professor of civil engineering and so in our little way we are doing what we are able to do as we soldier on and build capacity. Yes, we are mindful that without research and innovation, the profession can die a slow death. And that we would not like to see happen.

Let’s revisit the issue of the CPD; there has been proposal to introduce a school of engineering, an equivalent of law school

Thank you very much.

I must confess that I have not a very strong opinion in that matter. My only worry is that I have not scrutinized it, maybe now that you raised it, I certainly will go into details and look at how they intended it to work, and we have not seen this in many parts of the World. Yes that is the first point we need to take note. We have not seen this in most of the developing World – US, Australia, Canada and so forth. We have not seen this not in South Africa, not Nigeria and obviously not in any other African country

The question is and I know they will keep saying lawyers have a law school and so on but the medics do not have a similar school and yet medicine, I would call it something that is closely related to engineering in terms of profession requirements. And medics have what we call the internship. Engineers we also actually have an internship. When you are a graduate engineer when you come out, you register as a graduate engineer and that is where your internship starts, so to put people all in one place, I think it may end up denying people the varied experience they get from different projects.

Like in my case, I had a mentor who supervised me and every six months he signed for what I had done and I signed it off, and when I went for my interview to be registered as a professional engineer, I presented this report and I was interviewed and it all worked very well. This shortcoming of wanting to put people in one place like the lawyers do, I think it may be just too risky

More importantly, let us also accept the fact that learning never stops because now you become a registered engineer. You see, in your life you are going to come across new things all the times and you are learning everyday and as so long as your foundation is well grounded, both from university and as during your period as a graduate engineer, you should have enough ability to learn on the job as you carry on. That would be my view but let us wait and see how this will turn out.

I would like to add here, if I may, one of the roles of Engineers Board of Kenya should be really continuous professional development of a graduate engineer and I am glad they are focusing on this. They really need to provide the checks and balances to ensure that this person receives a good engineering practical experience post university.

The Technologist and technicians engineering act comes in force, what’s your take?

First of all, the Engineers Board of Kenya should never have been called the Engineers Board of Kenya. It should have been called the Engineering Board of Kenya. Why am I saying this? Engineering is a spectrum and that spectrum starts with a craftsman at the lower end, so you have a craftsman then and artisan/craftsman then as you move further up, you now come to a technician and then technician graduates to a technologist and then the work of a technologist is supervised by the engineer, so you have got like a ladder climbing up. This whole thing is called the engineering profession.

A technician is in the engineering profession. An artisan is in the engineering profession. A technologist is in the engineering profession. An engineer is in the engineering profession so they all work and you know that for every engineer, in fact World standard tell you that for every engineer you need to have like six technologists and for each engineer you need like 20 technicians and so forth.
They all support each other. In terms of the proximity of the problem at hand this then defines where it is situated so an engineer deals with complex abstract things, design and all that. A technician would be in the factory, he keeps the factory going. A technician can also be a draftsman so when the engineer has conceptualized things, he passes it on to the technician who is the draftsman to now draw it and actualized it. These people are all in the same profession. There should have been a chapter for Technologists, a chapter for Technicians, a chapter for Engineers and a chapter for Artisans. Then we all work in harmony.

Now that this was missing, clearly the Technologists and the Technicians would feel left out of this profession, which is an engineering profession. It is not engineers’ profession, it is the engineering profession. It is the medical profession; it is not the doctors’ profession. You do not say it is the doctors’ profession, it is the medical profession.

If that could have happened, maybe this tension between technologists and technicians would not have been there and the need for a separate act to regulate them would have been unnecessary but one hopes that the tensions will not build too much to the extent where you will destroy both the engineering profession in Kenya because the engineers need the technicians, the engineers need the technologists

For me I would think now that the technicians and the technology bill has been assented to, some sanity will prevail, let us come together and let us, in fact for me if you ask me my dream would be to see a unified profession and rename this as Engineering Board of Kenya, which would now bring the Engineers Board of Kenya, it would bring the Technicians and the Technologists Board of Kenya and create a singular body which is Engineering Board of Kenya. And that is how it works in many other parts of the World. Otherwise we are going to run into a crisis.

‘At Masinde Muliro we are happy to be part of this equation, we are committed to strengthening our engineering programs which is part of our flagship programs’

What is your parting shot and what do you see the future of Masinde Muliro University like?

I think the future for engineering profession in Kenya is very good. We have some of the finest young men and women doing these courses in many universities in Kenya, we need to support them. I would want to say that we are in a developmental phase, let all stakeholders just moderate their views in terms of what they want to see, let us build each other instead of destroying each other and this is all for the good of our country and as I said when we started, engineers are known to be creators of wealth. They will create wealth to improve their standard of living of our people and hopefully build a stable and prosperous Kenya.

At Masinde Muliro we are happy to be part of this equation, we are committed to strengthening our engineering programs which is part of our flagship programs and we believe that with time, we will see all our programs fully accredited so that we can take our rightful position in building a strong profession in engineering practitioners both engineers, technicians and technologists in our Country.

Thank you very much for your time and I wish you all the very best.

Thank you very much, I appreciate the opportunity to be interviewed and if we have another opportunity, we would like to share with you other things when we get them on course.


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