Engineering in Kenya has evolved through a myriad of challenges. The challenges in the industry range from accreditation, postgraduate training, evaluation for registration and opportunities for Engineers. Engineering education perhaps the most exposed to the general public is faced by the matter of accreditation of engineering courses. Some universities have been accused of teaching engineering courses without proper accreditation by the Engineers Board of Kenya. This has led to a clash that has informed the biggest debate in the circles of engineering spanning the last five years leading all the way to corridors of justice.
Accreditation debate in the cuts across students, graduates, universities, The board and the industry. Engineers Registration Board (ERB) as it was known under the old constitution and the Engineers Registration Act Cap 530, had a mandate by definition narrowed to registration. Though the legislation defined roles other than registration, the body it established was largely viewed as meant to register Engineers. With promulgation of the new constitution and operationalization of The Engineers Act 2011, The Engineers Board of Kenya was established and took to stamp its authority as far as accreditation of Engineering programs is concerned. This happened at a time when many universities were springing up in literally every corner of cities and market places. The trend of proliferation of universities and campuses started under the Grand coalition government attracting a derogatory comment from the then Minister for Higher Education Hon William Ruto when he advised that Universities should not be opened behind butcheries and charcoal vending outlets.
The Board upon establishment reviewed all Engineering programs in all universities and flagged a number of non-complying courses offered in all the universities including the established universities. The non-compliance ranged from curriculum, staffing deficiencies to facility inadequacy. This culminated to rejection of graduates from these programs causing many graduates to miss Graduate registration with the board. At the same time, the Board as per the act wrote to public and private institutions warning them not to engage persons not recognized by the Act. This meant that hundreds or probably thousands of graduates would find it difficult getting jobs legitimately. Those who secured jobs would be treated casually and paid peanuts.
A number of Universities implemented corrective actions as guided by EBK. This got their courses accredited and their graduates registrable. Jomo Kenyatta University for instance had to introduce what came to be called Double degree, as remedy for their students who had already graduated. Under this program, the students who had beenrejected due to course content deficiency were allowed to return to The University to study the additional units and exit with another degree which would then be used to apply for registration at EBK, while retaining the first degree (that was not registrable).
Other universities however chose a different path, which is to argue that EBK has no mandate to accredit programs of a Chartered University. This argument was picked by affected students especially those who had graduated already. The students filed a petition against Engineers Board of Kenya principally to strip it the powers to accredit and remove the possible overlap with CUE whereby only CUE would exclusively exercise such powers. The case was won first round at the High Court but was reversed by Judges at The court of appeal in the Civil application 263 of 2012. The petitioners proceeded to the Supreme Court where the case has been to date. The reasoning given in the court of appeal ruling emphasized the importance of Professional Regulatory bodies’ role in regulating training inputs into the professionals under their purview. The Hon bench determined that indeed the meaning of the word ‘recognize’ as used in Cap 530 envisaged active involvement of the regulator in determining whether the program is or isn’t fit for delivery. The court recognized that indeed EBK has no mandate to accredit Universities, as CUE; but their obligation is limited to accrediting Engineering programs (being disciplines falling under their jurisdiction to regulate).
The answer to the back and forth in my opinion; lies in local Universities complying with the laid down criteria, probably even improve the criteria and make engineering education better. Over time indeed most of the Universities have dealt with the issues and if the UoE advert on 15th February is anything to go by, the problem is on track to being solved and may just be laid to rest altogether. Affected student on one hand must channel their efforts to the universities; with whom they contracted to receive training leading to registrability, in exchange for school fees. The student’s must demand for registrable degrees from the Universities. EBK on the other hand must go about the accreditation matter with utmost fidelity to the laid laws devoid of personal interests and any sense of braggadocio.
Other than the problems of local universities mentioned above, there’s a set of students who studied Engineering in foreign Universities. To obtain graduate registration in Kenya, they require to make an application to The Board for registration upon graduation. The Board subjects the foreign qualifications to the Academic Qualifications Committee for evaluation and due diligence on the programs studied. The committee then advices the Board on suitability of the candidates for registration. Again, a number of graduates including a significant number who studied on Government scholarships were barred from graduate registration citing deficiency in the courses; mostly course content.
This arguably is the most complex case since there is minimal or no room to remedy the situation. It must be appreciated that Foreign Universities have no direct legal obligations with EBK as opposed to local Universities. It’s also unlikely that any of those universities would re-admit their graduates for two or three units to remedy the situation raised by the regulator in Kenya. It leaves the graduates in a position that requires the industry to burn midnight oil to find a solution urgently. Among the alternatives to be considered are; registering the graduates under a narrower discipline say instead of registering one as a Civil Engineer, they could be registered as a Structural Engineer or a water Engineer depending on which units are missing. This may require pieces of legislation to support it. The regulator could also enter agreements with local institutions to set up remedial programs structured to bridge the identified gaps. The universities would in this case offer the specific units and issue transcripts for the units. The transcripts would then be used jointly with the degree obtained from the Foreign University to register the graduates. Such a system does not exist at the moment and may take time to set up. Meanwhile, time doesn’t stop for the graduates and it’s fair to appreciate that they need to win their daily bread. Temporal registration could be considered to alleviate the situation while a solution is worked out.
This will ensure that graduates don’t get completely stuck with no way out after having spent years in Universities studying, graduating and getting suddenly in a fix that nobody knows whether it will ever get sorted.
On job training
After graduating and registering as a graduate Engineer, it is expected that one will be mentored under a Professional Engineer, for a period of not less than three years before applying to upgrade to Professional Engineer. During this period, it is expected of the graduate to get on job training and experience in the full cycle of Engineering (design, implementation, quality control and contract management). This has presented huge uncertainties to trainees since there’s no standard structured criteria for the employers to deliver the training to graduates. It all depends with which job the graduate lands into upon graduation. Some employers may keep the graduate in one position (sub department) for all the years of employment. This denies the graduate the all rounded experience to enable them progress to the next level. It at times happens by design or by default. Whereas some employers do it for business/production (the employee working on an aspect of work he has mastered delivers faster), others have no option/opportunity to afford the graduate other aspects of training. The latter may happen for instance when a graduate is employed by a company which wins tenders for design of say bridges over a prolonged period. If the firm never signs up a contractfor construction supervision, the employee may never get to experience what supervision assignments would offer for training. They will have the limited option of moving out of their jobs in search of greener pastures, but again must answer the question of – where to? The trainee is stuck with mastery of one area and deficiency in other important areas. This has caused many would be applicants for PE registration to remain in GE positions for a prolonged time.
The proposed internship program under the Engineers Act 2011, may be an excellent opportunity to mitigate this challenge or fix it altogether. It must be followed with structured implementation and monitoring to succeed and transform the industry for the better.
Registration upgrade to PE
Every graduate Engineer wishes to transition to Professional Engineer at the earliest opportunity. The conversion however has remained extremely low when comparing the demographics in the industry. In 2011, I went collecting information on Engineering training and registration demographics to enable me complete a paper for the purpose of presenting at the Annual Engineers Conference then. I never got to present the paper but important to note is that by then, the registered Professional Engineers were just about 2,000 in the whole country. This was against more that 18,000 total number of graduates from local universities since inception. (The figures are estimates since the information provided by the Universities that were offering Engineering by then had gaps in some of the programs).
The question of low conversion rates from GE to PE has been canvassed for long in several engineering fora but answers have remained scanty. Universities have been churning out graduates, a huge portion gets diverted to other non-engineering industry, some never obtain graduate registration and another big chunk simply get stuck at graduate registration. Today we have about 2,200 combined number of professional and consulting Engineers against 11,114 registered graduate engineers as obtained from official EBK portal. This excludes engineering graduates who have not registered with the regulator despite having completed their Bachelors degrees successfully. Obviously the gap deserves not only explanation but deliberate action to remedy the situation. The ratio of competent Engineering professionals to registered graduates is 1:5. With ever fewer training opportunities discussed above, the next big impediment in the industry is perceptions. There has been extreme negativity in the industry at times pitting graduates against The Board which for a long time has been viewed as a ‘cartel’. The perception is shared by some professional Engineers only making matters worse over time. Engineers are not alone in this perception trap. Lawyers and doctors too complain about ‘some cliques of seniors’ blocking them from progression through their regulator.
The cartel perception has been made worse by some senior PEs who probably never had it smooth registering. This includes PEs who never sailed through on first attempt. Some older GEs remain paranoid to the point that they have never applied for registration. For many younger engineers, they propagate the perception purely based on scanty or no information about the goings on at the Board. In absence of any clarification or demystification, the perception is bound to remain. It’s liberating to know that, many people who have gone through the evaluation process wonder why it took long to apply.
The process entails, documenting one’s CV in a prescribed format, filling application forms and submitting for registration. The board reviews the application and communicates to the applicant. If satisfied, hey will invite the applicant to submit his engineering technical report (on a project done by the applicant) and his detailed CV (again all in a prescribed format). These will be reviewed and the applicant invited for a one on one interview. The interview is normally fashioned along the reports submitted. It is conducted in the context of Engineering and management competencies surrounding the submissions of the applicant.
To finish off the evaluation process, applicants are given an essay to write again testing their Engineering knowledge, experience and judgement on the discipline they submitted.
The results and recommendations are submitted by the interview panel to The Board who deliberate and make a decision to register or not to register. Interesting to note is that unsuccessful candidates are made aware of their deficiencies. The board even goes further to advise on possible timeframe to make good and resubmit.
To close this debate, it’s important to draw a distinction between conversion rate and success rate. Success rate for applications to the Engineers Board of Kenya is arguably among the highest in the world. Institutions that have been praised like the Legal fraternity have recorded more worrying demographics as far as success rate on bar exams are concerned. A Nation newspaper report of 16th January 2018 gave startling numbers of performance at Kenya School of Law from 2006to 2016. In 2015 November applications, out of 2167 students, fails were 1575, giving 73% failure rate translating to 27% success rate. In 2016, November, 2810 students applied for the exam and only 415 passed, recording a failure rate of 85% thus a 15% success rate.
I remember sitting exams for arbitration in 2010 to upgrade to full membership from Associate Member. In Module 2, out of a class of 13, only two people passed and one was repeating. This was again 15% success rate. The trend in other regulatory bodies even indeveloped countries may record higher success rates probably 50% or 60% but this is still significantly low compared to success rates at The Engineers Board of Kenya.
Applications received and processed by EBK record success rates of 80%-95%. Even with such high success rates, the conversion rates from GE to PE have remained low. Could these demographics change if EBK received more applicants? Have graduates deliberately chosen not to apply for registration due to the entrenched perceptions? Or have they been too lazy to document and apply? Have they been scared of the unknown to the point of staying away? Or have they lacked opportunities to obtain relevant training to enable them document their experience and gain the confidence to apply?
Answers to the above question will see an initial jump in the number of engineers who convert from GE to PE and may just help reduce the gap of demand for Engineering services.
Engineering opportunities in the industry
In a recent Engineers dinner that I attended, a veteran engineer commented that the industry has enough space for all of us. Yet we still have thousands of persons trained in Engineering who can’t find the opportunities.
Engineering works, or works which would better be performed by Engineers have been taken up by ‘mama mbogas’ and ‘pastoralists’ posing as contractors when Engineers go selling insurance policies and working as bank tellers. On one hand we complain of shortage of skills and on the other hand unemployment of skilled labor. Eng. Bramwel Wanyalikha of Kenya Pipeline Company, presenting a paper at an IEK conference held at Sarova Whitesands in Mombasa lamented about shortage of Instrumentation engineers. That was more than 6 years ago. Today, Instrumentation Engineering graduates from Egerton University cannot get graduate registration in Kenya and cannot practice in Kenya. At the same time, we’re still lamenting of shortage of such skills. The level of dejection and hopelessness exhibited by fresh engineering graduates would shock any sane human. Why this should be happening in a developing Country beats logic. It is expected that developing countries should have more opportunities for Engineers, with a faster growth rate in demand. We are far from the recommended Engineer/public ratio, yet we have more engineering graduates jobless and not sure of their tomorrow.
This is where the Institution of Engineers has performed way below average and so much has been lost over time. The Institution leadership and membership must begin thinking of opening opportunities by all means whether by legislation, support systems, sensitization and networking. There are no two ways about it. As Eng. Mwangi of Kurrent Technologies aptly put it: Engineers must claim their space.
The Engineering fraternity cannot afford to sit back and spectate when they are in-charge of more than 90% of the country’s development budget.
What we call industry challenges are problems created by man and will definitely need to be solved by someone among us or by all of us jointly. We have the will, the resolve, and already so much has happened through the restructuring on EBK.
Reforms that have taken place at IEK for the last four years alone are notable and we must not lose the tempo, nor slow down. We must put accreditation problems behind us, have our institutions comply with regulations, find a solution for the graduates with foreign qualifications, establish a solid framework for postgraduate Engineering training, encourage more graduate Engineers to apply and successfully navigate the GE-PE transition and finally make space for everyone and beyond.