Growth stymied by academia-industry disconnect – Experts

The disconnect between institutions of higher learning and industry is proving to be a serious inhibitor of the development of local skills needed to ensure the extractive industry takes off in East Africa, according to some of the region’s experts.

Speaking at the inaugural Morendat Institute of Oil and Gas conference held in Nairobi in Kenya recently, Professor Catherine Ngila, deputy director of training, academics and linkages at the Morendat Institute of Oil and Gas, Kenya, said East Africa suffers from a shortage of skilled manpower to enable the full exploration, exploitation and processing of the oil and gas natural resources discovered in the last decade.

The discovery was originally heralded as a boon to the region’s economic growth and industrialisation, particularly in Kenya and Uganda.

“The challenges we face in East Africa and the Africa continent derive from the fact that tertiary institutions have not historically emphasised the need for the technical skills’ development required to produce artisans, technologists, engineers,” said Ngila.

The Morendat Institute of Oil and Gas was established as part of the commitments made under the Northern Corridor Integration Project for the states of Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan, with the aim of developing the skills needed to support the extractive sector. Delegates to the conference noted that most graduates lack technical skills but also have inadequate mathematical and business skills, and non-technical or soft skills such as problem solving and human resource skills.

Perceptions of inferiority

In an interview with University World News, Ngila, who is also a professor of analytical-environmental chemistry, said artisanal jobs such as welding and plumbing have in the past been viewed as inferior careers pursued by those who never made it into universities and other degree programme-based institutions.

African universities for their part had not done enough to equip students with the requisite technical skills, focusing instead on theoretical approaches to science and engineering.

Moreover, Ngila observed that the criteria used to rate universities are weighted in favour of research and publications, industry funding and the international footprint of the institution.

“This means that the academics will have to spend more time producing publications than teaching technical skills,” she said.

Another challenge discussed at the conference was the lack of facilities and equipment for training purposes. Most institutions, it was argued, do not give priority to science and engineering equipment and tend to neglect the workshops and laboratories in science and engineering faculties in favour of aesthetically attractive buildings.

Ngila said the slow rate of translating science and engineering knowledge into innovation derives from inadequate investment in science and engineering equipment in schools and institutions of higher learning, including the universities. This means that students cannot put into practice the science and engineering concepts learned in class.

Ngila said this means that East Africa will continue to import technical skills until industry-based learning or work integrated learning is fully embraced. She urged universities to increase partnerships with industries to offer tailor-made curricula that prepare students to be productive on the first day on the job.

Losing engineers to religion and history

The call was echoed at the Higher Education Partnerships in Sub-Saharan Africa conference, held in Nairobi last month and hosted by Moi University in collaboration with the Technical University of Kenya and the Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom.

Technical University of Kenya Vice-chancellor Professor Francis Aduol said most universities in the region teach a lot of theoretical work with less focus on practical training. “We need to strike a balance between theoretical teaching and practical training,” said Aduol, adding that the region has a shortage of engineers required to achieve its development plans.

Citing the example of Kenya, the vice-chancellor said the country has a ratio of one engineer to 2,500 Kenyans instead of the required one engineer to 200 Kenyans.

“If we don’t avert the current trend of theoretical training of engineers, it’s just a matter of time and we shall start losing engineering students to religion and history because they won’t find value in our programme,” Aduol said.