Prof. Francis O. Aduol has been the Vice-chancellor of the Technical University of Kenya from the year 2008 having spent quite a big chunk of his time at the University of Nairobi where he had joined as a junior lecturer. His area of specialty is survey, typically known as land surveying in which he graduated at the University of Nairobi at the Bachelors and Masters level. He did his PhD in Germany. On the administration side, he has been in senior level university administration for about thirty years from 1990. The Kenya Engineer Team held a long ranging interview with him.
On his experience as an Administrator
When you become a Head of Department in the university, it gives you a chance to get to the senate and when you start interacting in the senate, you can say that you are interacting with the university at a senior management level.
So I served from that period as Head of Department of surveying at the University of Nairobi. I served as the Dean of Faculty of Engineering between October 1995 and March 1999. I served for over nine years thereafter as the Principal of College of Architecture and Engineering before coming here in 2008. I came here as a Principal of the college in what was then known as Kenya Polytechnic University College and then became vice-chancellor in 2013.
In between all this, I have also been involved with the university system in this country in many ways. I have been involved in numerous committees of the university system in this country and can count over sixty if I were to sit down and do so, having been chairman in not less than twenty of them. I was chairman of the Vice-chancellors’ Committee of Public Universities between 2016 and August 2019. In my time, we had 39 members; 31 universities and eight university colleges. So that gave me a very wide view on how the university system in this country works at that level.
From 1995, when I became dean, I have also been actively involved with previously the Joint Admissions Board where I chaired many committees. A good example is the committee that works on the weighted formula for admitting students into universities. I was member of the committee in 1998 and being one of the few mathematically minded persons in the group, I got involved in the devising of the formula that we use to admit students into universities. So I am the one who worked on the weighted cluster formula in 1998 before revising it in 2012, following the Joint Admissions Board decision to review it so as to make it more precise especially after bringing in the decimals, which were too noisy.
I have also been responsible for calculating what is known as the Differentiated Unit Cost, which is for costing university programs in this country.
Currently, I serve in the KUCCPS Board where I’m the chairman of the committee concerned with the placement of students. I am also part of the Higher Educations Loan Board.
His vision for the Technical University of Kenya?
The Technical University of Kenya was established by the government in 2007 as Kenya Polytechnic University College to be a specialized university. One of the objectives was to create a university that will focus on technical education in this country. Other attempts to create technological universities have been made before but those institutions ended up becoming general universities with time. An example is the University of Nairobi which also started off as a technical college before becoming a general university.
So this university was established to offer technological subjects as well as vocational subjects like Graphics Design and Music. When I came here in 2008, my first effort was to understand what this objective was about and then try to interpret it in a way that will work. Our interpretation was that for us to make people appreciate the university for teaching technology, we had to teach a subject like engineering in a way similar to the University of Nairobi, JKUAT and other universities. So firstly, we instituted a program in engineering which was similar to that offered in other established institutions. So we put out a five-year engineering program after which one would graduate in a way that he/she would be able to seek professional registration with the Professional Board of Engineers, which is now he Engineers’ Board of Kenya.
The next focus was to produces graduates who had strong hands-on skills. So we want to train someone with the knowledge on engineering but is strong on hands-on skills because this was noted as missing in our economy. Thirdly, we were to provide opportunities for people who had graduated with a diploma from technical training institutes so as to upgrade their knowledge and skills. Many graduates from our technical training institutes who wanted to advance their studies were often forced to go abroad and look for opportunities there because our universities did not have the opportunities.
We therefore introduced a degree program called the Bachelor of Technology in Engineering then went to science and said that we will also have a Bachelor of Technology Degree. Here, we give you hands-on skills in chemistry, physics, biology and even other areas like graphic design. We also use the Bachelor of Technology to provide opportunity for a person with a diploma by recognizing his/her academic qualifications from a technical training institute, putting them onto the Bachelors program and in two years they have their degree.
My vision for this university is to establish a well-recognized institution of technological education and training, where people can come and be sure of quality scientific education and strong hands-on skills. To strengthen that, every student must get at least six months of industrial attachment if one is on a degree program, three months inside the university and the other three outside the university.
We hope that one day, this will be a perfect university of technology recognized worldwide.
Opinion on the accreditation of degrees in Kenya
The practice worldwide is that professional bodies involve the universities to ensure that correct education and training in their respective fields is offered by the universities. They give guidelines which the universities are expected to integrate as they develop their curriculum.
The most important academic institution in the university is a senate because it determines what and how it should be taught, who should teach or who may be taught. So professional bodies are just meant to assist the university in making this stronger.
According to me, the professional bodies have been over enthusiastic in getting involved with university matters in the recent past. This is because they always want to come in and control how universities teach and do their curriculum while they themselves are not trained in such things. This has brought serious conflict between universities and the professional bodies in this country. A university is basically meant to train young people to have a solid philosophical and scientific knowledge in the various subjects. The practice of engineering is therefore the work of the professional bodies out there.
So the universities should be allowed to teach the science of engineering and let the professional bodies continue with their practice out there. To give you an idea of how this should work, America probably has the best structure for me. In America, there is a board called Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) which is responsible for accrediting engineering and technology programs in that country. They accredit your degree program without the professional bodies coming in. After accreditation by that body and consequent graduation from the university, you go to another board know as National Council for Examination in Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). This body has two exams; fundamentals in engineering for engineering students and fundamentals in surveying for surveying students. If you do the exams and pass, you will get a certificate that allows you to describe yourself as the equivalent of a graduate engineer or surveyor in Kenya. After about three years, you can then take a full professional exam which if you pass, you are given a certificate which you will take to the professional body for registration. All the professional body will now do is just to interview you on matters such as conduct after which you will be registered as an engineer. So here, there are four bodies working independent of each other.
In what way can the Commission of University Education work with the Engineers Board in accreditation of Courses?
You see, I don’t agree with what we as universities have been pushing the Commission for University to do; that when they come to accredit our program, they should be accompanied by someone from the Engineers Board of Kenya for example, so that the accreditation is done and finished with once and for all. There should still be room for a university to apply to Engineers Board of Kenya to accredit their program, just for the purpose of being comfortable. But I do not think it should be mandatory.
The main accreditation should be done by someone else, and I think these two bodies should do that; first is the Commission for University Education, who might accredit programs in the university in terms of academic quality. There should also be a second body, similar to the American ABET, who will specifically come in to look into engineering and technology programs and accredit them. This body should be separate from the CUE and also separate from the professional body (EBK).
So once someone graduates from my program, there should then be a national examination board, which can be by the professional body for the avoidance of creating so many bodies. A person from the university to go to the Engineers Board of Kenya and do a fundamental exam, similar to the American one which asks you very many questions about engineering just to see if you understand the basics of engineering. After that, you get a certificate and EBK should admit you as a graduate engineer.
I know there is a question you will ask later about Kenya School of Engineering. I don’t think it will be necessary. The student has already spent money and taken five years to undertake the program. I also do not think that there are any countries in the world with a university like the Kenya School of Law.
For a long time in the land surveying profession, which I am in, we had a body known as the Certified Land Surveyors of East Africa which got examiners from across East Africa and gave them an examination. If you passed, you became a certified land surveyor in East Africa and allowed you to practice the profession anywhere in the region.
Capacity building for fresh graduates?
Point number one, no one can leave the university and immediately go to practice. They don’t have the capacity, whether the program is accredited or not. A fresh graduate always works under someone. Unfortunately for kenyan fresh graduates, our professionals are even denying students the chance to work under someone if you come from a program they deem not to have been recognized by them, which is not good.
I therefore urge the Engineers Board of Kenya to be more proactive by encouraging as many young people as possible to join the profession, instead of chasing them away with rules such as ‘coming from a program they deem not to have been recognized by board.’
The Engineers Board of Kenya should therefore continue working with the universities to get programs accredited, but they should not tell universities that we cannot teach engineering until they say so. Universities have the power to teach engineering without anyone’s permission because it is the duty of the senate to determine what universities can teach and what they cannot.
The more the professional bodies get too much involved in what universities are doing, the more they are converting the universities into training institutions and not institutions where people think. Students in the universities are supposed to be trained to think freely and in multi-dimensional ways so that they become innovative. This helps them in future because when a problem they were not trained arises, they can engage their minds and say “I think I can go towards this direction and find a solution.”
Impact of the Technologists and Technicians Engineering Bill that was enacted into law?
As the Technical University of Kenya, we were very much involved in getting this to work. I am actually the one who championed for that effort. This is because when we started offering degrees in Bachelors of Technology, we realized that we needed to demonstrate to students that the Bachelors of Technology in Engineering is something that would be recognized in the field out here since it had not been done before. Since it had not been done in this region before, the first batch of students we admitted for that degree were asking if we were giving them qualifications that don’t exist, despite us giving them successful examples of the same being carried out in the USA, South Africa, Germany and other few countries.
As a result, we felt that we needed an Act of parliament that would recognize qualifications for the Bachelors of Technology as a professional qualification so that students can feel comfortable with what they were learning. After consultations with the people teaching engineering in this institution, we approached Parliament, a bill was proposed and eventually passed into law.
The impact has been good because our students now feel more assured that the degree they are studying on is valid, since they can see a professional body that they can identify themselves with. It has also provided them with opportunities because if you graduate with a Bachelors of Technology, you can be registered as an engineering technologist. We are working on the possibilities of how students can graduate from an engineering technologist to a full engineer with their qualifications. The same case applies to technicians. These people can therefore actually set up shop, do technician works and identify themselves as registered engineering technicians or technologists.
Having said that, I do not think that this was the ideal solution to this problem. In my view, the ideal solution would have been for example what happens in South Africa, where the equivalent of Engineers Board of Kenya registers the engineering technicians, engineering technologists and the full engineers. All three are in the same council but in different orders and levels.
Kenya should therefore establish a board for the engineering profession which will be responsible for registering technicians, technologists and engineers. They should also be able to define more clearly on what an engineer, a technician and a technologist is supposed to do and this should be described in the same document. What we have now creates room for duplication and conflict because there are different boards dealing with these professions. So, my hope is eventually these boards can come together to create one engineering professional board responsible for the registration of people who practice in this industry.
Is that the full impact?
Well, there are engineers who leave university and try to register with the Engineers Board of Kenya but they do not get registered. They will go to the Technologists Board and get registered as technologists. Unfortunately, in this country, most of the works being done by engineers are not of serious engineering nature. They are a type for technologists. So, it is true that with this board, some of the engineers will lose their jobs because most of them are doing work meant for technologists. If all that work is taken over by technologists, engineers will have very little left for them to do.
So the best way to deal with this is by getting the engineers and technologists to work together. However, it was so difficult to convince the Engineers Board of Kenya that this was the right way to proceed. If they work together, they will be able to define more clearly on what each person is responsible for and they will also regulate the activities of each other on the table.
Incidentally, I believe that Kenya needs more technologists than engineers, by far. So we needed to train technologists and to train technologists, we needed to show our students that there is a professional body that will take care of them.
The state of the nation, with regard to development and technology, and its relevance to the university.
The level of technological development in our country is still very low and it is one of the reasons why the engineering graduates we are training do not meet their full potential, even at a professional level. Most of our engineering graduates are forced to work at a much lower level than they were trained. Most graduates are forced to transform into the level of technologists and technicians in order for them to survive.
So the question is what we should do to ensure that we operate at a high level. I think the problem is in two folds: First, it is for those of us who work at the university to get our students to be more entrepreneurial in how they do things. We also need more entrepreneurs coming in with more high-level technology so as to be able to engage our graduates. The key to this in entrepreneurship. Our graduates have a lot of knowledge on the things they should be doing but they are not able to do because people are not so adventurous to go and start things. Kenya is very weak in the area of manufacturing. You find people with a degree in Engineering with no jobs a year after graduating, yet we need people to make small things like toothpicks and pins because the ones we use are imported from China. Why can’t an Engineering graduate think of making these things?
I think our programs, even engineering, are not very strong in business thinking but that has got to do with the way we started training engineers in this country many years ago. Engineering was, and is still seen as a prestigious profession where brilliant people go to and most of its teaching is not to make you an engineer but just to reinforce the fact that you came here with good grades. So, a lot of time is spent teaching you mathematics and physics but probably not how to be an engineer.
Under the Big Four Agenda, the President has put the aspect of manufacturing but I don’t know who is directly involved in promoting that.
Challenges faced by trainers of engineering and other technical programs.
One is the curricula that we are running. I think the curricula we are running are very conservative, even though they have been approved by professional bodies. There are certain things you are required to do the same way they were done many years ago, and this has stifled the progress, creativity and innovation in the way we teach engineering.
Secondly, we do not have enough quality staff to train our students. Kenya has a huge shortage of people who can be relied on to teach engineering, and this is not because there aren’t Kenyans who can teach. There are very good Kenyans running engineering schools in South Africa and the USA. The problem is when South Africa opened in the mid-1990s, many Kenyans ran and went there because the terms and conditions of working in universities in this country were so bad that it became hard for us to keep the very best we had. A number of us therefore went away and have never come back, and there are still more people joining them. I don’t know how we are going to deal with this problem because like in this university, we hire young people with Bachelors and Masters degrees and then put you on the path to become a university professor one day. Because of this problem of staff shortage, we are forced to actually spend good money sponsoring these people in countries like the UK for three or four years to do a PhD. They then come back and because our terms are so bad and anybody with a good PhD in Engineering is sought after allover the world, these people get other jobs with better terms and don’t come back to Kenya. What do we do if they don’t come back? We are forced to get another lot of young people and sponsor them to go and get their PhDs, and these also do not come back. This now becomes the cycle and makes the teaching of engineering in our country extremely difficult.
Thirdly, I think our government has never fully appreciated that for you to get quality engineers, you need to invest in learning facilities and resources. Our universities are really struggling. We have universities that are forced to go to technical training institutes to do their experiments there. How does that work? It is a painful and frustrating experience for someone who is in charge, and especially if you know what you should be doing.
Are our professional bodies alive to the fact that institutions lack proper equipment?
Of course. I would not be surprised about that. If the Engineers Board of Kenya were to set up very tough standards that are found in other countries, none of our universities or institutions would be accredited. The Engineers Board of Kenya are therefore sensitive of the fact that they also live in this country and so they allow certain things to pass. So we have a lot of challenges, even in the programs that have been accredited.
So how do we ensure quality training under these circumstances?
Well, we use the standard university practice in this country. We use the external examiner process and of course there is now the professional body who come to accredit our program; but the only quality assurance that universities in this country have had is the use of external examiners, which may not always be so effective because the universities choose who the examiner should be.
I think the EBK, everyone else involved in the profession and people involved in training need a very open discussion on how to deal with these issues. We need to up our game.
Benefits Kenyan institutions stand to gain in fostering partnerships with global engineering communities?
There are always benefits when you partner with international bodies. They come and look at our program against what they are doing elsewhere and compare standards, which gives us comfort as a young university.
One program that we have had very good external linkage is Aeronautical Engineering because this was a very unique program when we started. We were the first university to teach Aeronautical Engineering in Kenya. It is very sensitive and to convince people that we were training at the right level, we needed to have very strong linkages with people from outside. We have therefore tried making several linkages with Kenya Airways for example and a number of aviation companies at Wilson Airport. We have linkages with one or two universities abroad and also work with professional institutions in the UK. It gives us confidence when they tell us what we are doing is reasonable and can pass.
In spite of the big challenges that we have, our graduates have competed very well internationally. They go through a program that has a lot of challenges here and when they go abroad to good universities, they just excel. We wish that we could have the same facilities and resources here.
Exchange program for training purposes?
Let me put it this way. Most students coming to a university like this come as postgraduate students since each country has their own undergraduate programs. This university is just beginning to graduate its first cohorts of postgraduate students; we just graduated our second lot of PhD students and maybe five lots of Masters’ students. We are beginning to advertise ourselves internationally at the postgraduate level for students to come here and do their postgraduate studies and in some few cases, we have received very good responses of people who want to come and study.
Just this year, we were accepted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities to host one of their prestigious scholarship programs and when our name was put on their website for people to apply to our programs, we got over forty applicants while we were only hoping to get five or six. I hope this coronavirus pandemic will not interfere with this.
So that is going to be a good starting point in terms of exposing us to a point where people can actually come and study.
Can Universities add value to various ongoing/upcoming government projects?
This has been a discussion for a long time; on how the government can make use of university expertise in the various engineering projects that it allocates. I don’t think I can blame the government on this.
The government and the universities need to come together and agree on how the government can make use of university expertise to their projects. First of all, it will be cheap for the government because the government will be using its own people.
Secondly, it will retain the technology here with us and will train our people further. This is because we learn and become sharper as problems come, as opposed to deciding that we should bring foreigners to work because our people have nothing to offer us. What we do not realize is that most of these foreigners we bring in quite often have lower knowledge than our own people.
So it is experience that makes a difference and when you are in the university but you are not exposed to practical projects, that becomes a problem.
Thirdly, it would give the university staff extra income, which would be an incentive to keep quality staff in our universities. We as Kenyans like to think about other East African countries as being a little bit lower than us, but in terms of engineering education, I can tell you that the best school of engineering in East Africa has always been the University of Dare Salam. I think the University of Dare Salam overtook the University of Nairobi in the early 1990s. That school is the best in engineering in terms of facilities and academic staff. It also has small classes and therefore students are well taught. How did they do it? In that university, they created a body whose role was to work with government on government projects and it was paying lecturers more money than what lecturers were actually earning from the university. There was therefore an incentive to work in the university and still consult with this body.
Opportunities and expected growth areas for engineers.
Well, I would say the biggest opportunities today are in manufacturing. This is mainly because it is an area that even the President has agreed to spend money on in manufacturing and in construction where we are looking at housing. We should find different ways of training our graduates to go into manufacturing. For housing in my opinion is more in terms of research to come up with cheap building materials that many people can afford.
The future of engineering education at the Technical University of Kenya.
We intend to make this a key engineering school, not only in this country but the whole of this region. In terms of numbers, we are already the largest engineering school in Kenya. According to the latest count of the University Funding board, which funds the universities and students, we have about 3,950 students in the year 2019-2020. That is by far the largest number in this region.
We intend to not expand so much in terms of volume but to focus more on quality. Our vision is to be know as the number one university for engineering education in Kenya and East Africa. So we seem to have achieved that in terms of numbers and must now go on to also achieve that in terms of quality, facilities and staff.
Out strategic plan shows that moving forward, not less than 50% of the student s in this university will be in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Environment.
How would you rate your performance as a trainer of engineers?
Considering the constraints we have had in terms of facilities and staff, I would rate ourselves at 90%. We are still able to produce good graduates who are able to go out there and stand on their own and when we also send them out there to do their post-graduate studies, they often demonstrate that they are as good as those from other countries.
However, if I were to look at this in absolute terms; the kind of things we ought to do and the kind of persons that we actually ought to produce for this country, I would rate us at about 60%.
So considering the kind of environment that we are working in, I would say that we are doing pretty well.
Merging of universities.
You know, I was chairman of the Vice Chancellors’ Committee until August 2019 and during my chairmanship, we prepared a very elaborate document with the Ministry. One of the issues we addressed was this question of whether universities should be merged or not. Contrary to what people are thinking, we did not say yes nor did we say no.
We said that there is nothing wrong with universities and in fact recently, we approved regulations for the Commission of University Education on how universities may merge and so on. However, it should be university to university, just the same way it happens everywhere in the world. We can take examples of Rwanda and South Africa who went ahead and merged universities for different reasons.
We said that the universities should be the one to discuss between themselves and if two of them decide to merge, the guidelines are there to help them do it. Usually, universities merge because they have looked at the strengths of each other and felt that if they put their strengths together, they will be a better university.
The merging of universities will eventually happen when the two or three universities that want to do so have clearly seen the advantages. An example of one of the most recent mergers I think in the 1990s, was between the Victoria University of Manchester and the Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, who merged to form what is now called the University of Manchester.