Higher education strategy for renewable energy sector

A new strategy to promote higher education training in the field of renewable energy across Africa has been unveiled. The roadmap was the outcome of a workshop in Rwanda from 10-11 July, organised by the European Union Energy Initiative and attended by participants from more than 20 African countries.

There were 75 participants at the workshop, which was run with the Africa-EU Renewable Energy Cooperation Programme, RECP.

Niklas Hayek, project manager of the European Union Energy Initiative Partnership Dialogue Facility – EUEI PDF – in Germany, told University World News that the aim was to “exchange experiences and analyses on higher education activities, common trends and frameworks for renewable energy market development in Africa”.

EUEI PDF is an instrument of the EU Energy Initiative assisting the creation of enabling environments for investments in sustainable energy markets in Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Pacific, according to its website.

This is achieved through policy, regulation and strategy development, institution building and strengthening, capacity development and knowledge sharing. EUEI PDF also supports the Africa-EU Energy Partnership as a secretariat, and RECP’s implementation.

The status of higher education for the sector

"At present, throughout Africa there is only a limited number of masters programmes on the ground or in the planning phase. They differ significantly in stage of development, teaching and content profiles, financing structure and experiences,” Hayek pointed out.

“The range is from purely technical, engineering programmes based at a single university to a transnational setting involving taught courses at several universities, addressing renewable energy within an interdisciplinary approach.”

Workshop participant Al-Mas Sendegeya, a lecturer in sustainable energy and power systems at the Polytechnic of Namibia, added: “The status of higher education for the renewable energy sector is still very low compared to developed nations.”

There were “very few” African higher institutions offering renewable energy programmes at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

For example, a masters in renewable energy is offered by about 20 African universities such as the University of Zimbabwe, Makerere University in Uganda, the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Mekelle University in Ethiopia.

“Courses at the undergraduate level are not enriched to address problems in renewable energy. Generally, training of renewable energy professionals is mainly done off-continent, especially in Europe,” Sendegeya told University World News.

Key features of modern programmes

“Higher education plays a key role in training the next generation of renewable energy professionals in Africa,” said Hayek.

Engineers need to be trained in order to plan, design, develop, operate and maintain renewable energy installations at all sizes and levels. The capacities of future policy-makers need to be strengthened to develop conducive policy frameworks that promote the use of renewable energy technologies.

To support appropriate postgraduate training in Africa, the workshop identified key features for modern renewable energy masters programmes.

There was a need for careful consideration of teaching and research in renewable energy masters degrees. While tertiary education commissions played an oversight role regarding quality assurance, the primary responsibility should lie with institutions themselves.

There was also a need to attract more female students into science and engineering degrees, and for more higher education collaboration.

Regional and pan-African dialogue and cooperation between universities could foster quality assurance and widen academic opportunities offered to students. Through cooperation with European universities, world-leading expertise in renewable energy could be shared across Africa.

Internationalisation activities could involve exchange of lecturers and students, development and implementation of joint academic programmes, and alignment of research education activities.

Despite the challenges faced by distance education in Africa – for example poor internet access rates, lack of institutional frameworks and limited acceptance – it holds great potential for tertiary education. Distance education can significantly widen university access to people previously excluded due to economic, geographic or social reasons.

Academic education in the field of renewable energy should not be limited to a single discipline as the overlap with other sectors is obvious.

For example, postgraduates from a renewable energy engineering programme will required understanding of energy policy and economics. Programmes should, however, ensure their technical focus, for example by limiting interdisciplinary subjects to 30% of the curriculum.

Programme sustainability is difficult

Sustainable business models for African postgraduate programmes are hard to come by. Initial funding from donor organisations, to transfer into an own funding scheme, is not always successful.

It is not possible for universities to ask for tuition fees similar to those in Europe, North America or Australia.

An additional source of income for universities is consultancy work, as already offered by numerous universities in Africa, and that even may involve work by PhD students. Training for professionals from commerce and industry could also help to decrease dependence on donor funding and tuition fees.

Private sector involvement in academic programmes is limited at most African universities despite related benefits – employability may be increased through private sector engagement in curriculum development and student exposure to the market via internships.

The establishment of designated liaison offices within universities can promote private sector involvement towards academic programmes well adapted to market needs.

Hayek added: “A list of ongoing and planned academic programmes related to renewable energy in Africa was compiled during the workshop and is available online.

“With the established network of experts, identified key challenges and proposed areas of cooperation, RECP supported activities for higher education for renewables in Africa are now ready for take-off.”

Way forward

Sendegeya said: "On a long term basis, to ensure sensitisation of key government officials, renewable energy informal education programmes may be conducted or contracted by governments.

“Education should be through both informal and formal education approaches. Tailormade short courses and-or workshops should be organised for special categories of in-service personnel. For example training is important for professionals: architects, engineers, managers and leaders in the public, NGO and private sectors.”

“For long-term planning, energy education programmes should start with lower schools through to tertiary institutions. In academic and research institutions, innovative and competitive research must be emphasised. Research and development must be a concerted effort by both industry and government,” said Sendegeya.

“The training of human resources on the continent using available resources and skilled manpower is vital for long-term sustainability of resource development. The few trained professionals with extra support in terms of facilitation, can sustainably run and manage renewable energy training in higher education institutions.

“Governments in Africa should play a significant role in promoting renewable energy in higher education. Creating an enabling environment for training and promotion, and funding training to build capacity,” Sendegeya concluded.