Innovative hybrid masters appeals to working engineers

Learning about business models and Shark Tank pitches sounds like these subjects belong in an MBA, yet these topics form part of a new degree programme offered to engineers or scientists with at least one, but preferably more, years of field experience.

By presenting this in hybrid format, the faculty of engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU) has been able to attract working professionals from all over the African continent and the rest of the world to do the degree part-time from wherever they are.

SU’s masters in engineering management (MEM) currently has students hailing from or based in Botswana, Cameroon, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

“And they come from many different industries – not only engineering, manufacturing and mining, but also defence, petrochemical, fintech, research and development, fast moving consumer goods, utilities and government, Professor Taryn Bond-Barnard, the programme’s new academic coordinator, said.

“So, really a broad spread, and that’s important, because it means the students also learn from each other during group work. And they value the global network they are building very highly,” she added.

According to Professor Celeste Viljoen, the faculty’s vice-dean for teaching and quality assurance, the programme is seeing “massive growth”.

Added her colleague Professor Calie Pistorius: “The programme started with 84 students last year, grew with 104 students this year”, and “the sky’s the limit” for next year and beyond “because it’s online”.

A former vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria in South Africa and the University of Hull in the United Kingdom, Pistorius contributed to the establishment of the MEM at SU in 2022 as its founding academic coordinator.

Target audience

The programme is aimed at early- to mid-career engineers and scientists who want to “build exceptional careers that will empower them to shape the future”.

“Engineers and scientists typically acquire the technical know-how and skills they need to excel at their jobs during their undergraduate studies. But when these very capable individuals are thrust into leadership and management early on, they might feel a bit out of their depth,” Bond-Barnard explained.

She is an experienced project management specialist who shares the 19th-century English polymath Herbert Spencer’s belief that “the great aim of education is not knowledge but action”.

“This degree is designed to help our students fill the gap by providing an understanding of various disciplines that intersect with engineering, and equipping them with the skills they need for their new roles – from technology and innovation management to project and strategic management.

“They also learn about managing people, places and budgets, as well as using advanced quantitative methods for risk management and decision-support.

“Bit by bit, they build their own engineering management toolbox, which they can then use for the rest of their lives,” she said.

The programme’s lecturers are renowned experts in their fields, and some purposefully do not necessarily have an engineering background. For instance, Stellenbosch Business School tax lecturer Dr Lee-Ann Steenkamp “teaches our students how to ‘defend’ themselves against the accountants of this world,” Bond-Barnard said jokingly.

In line with the programme’s strong focus on real-world needs, many of the lecturers are industry leaders who feel the need to “give back”. For instance, Willem Barnard served as CEO of South African wine and spirits producer KWV for 13 years, Stefan Kätker is senior vice president of enterprise software giant SAP in Germany, and Gilchrist Mushwana is head of the cybersecurity service line at consultancy group BDO South Africa.

Student experience

University World News interviewed two final-year MEM students about their experience of the programme. Some of the positive aspects include the international profile of the group of students and the hybrid format in which it is offered.

“This course has been very useful in my job. I have been able to apply the learnings to my organisation. It’s most relevant,” Veronica Mwamfupe said.

Originally from Tanzania, she did her undergraduate studies in South Africa, and now works as a structural engineer for Jacobs in New Zealand, a firm she finds to be supportive of her studies.

“I work on a construction project at the moment, which means unpredictable and sometimes long hours, so hybrid learning works perfectly for me,” she said.

She admits that, with participants in various countries, each in a different time zone, group assignments “can be a pain sometimes”, but says “the fact that we are all working professionals helps us navigate this hurdle.”

Natalia Shiindi, a metallurgical engineer with Namibian diamond miner Namdeb, who is paying half her tuition, said she chose the MEM “due to its multifaceted approach, comprehensive curriculum and diverse array of courses, providing a well-rounded education”.

And the programme has lived up to her expectations: “It has been incredibly stimulating and invigorating, boosting my career aspirations.”

She is doing her research assignment on “the future of work in a digitised mining industry”, focusing on the “upskilling and reskilling of workers”, hoping to “identify the skills gap within our workforce and devise methods to elevate their capabilities, ensuring they remain relevant and competitive.”

Hybrid learning

SU has traditionally been a residential university providing contact tuition, but now lists “networked and collaborative teaching and learning” as one of its “core strategic themes” and hybrid learning as one of its “gamechangers”.

The MEM is one of a growing offering of courses provided by SU using hybrid learning. This is defined as “longer calendar blocks of fully online learning, supplemented with shorter blocks of contact learning.” In other words, a mixture of asynchronous and synchronous opportunities, allowing students the flexibility to learn at their own pace.

A hybrid learning business plan was approved by the SU senate in 2019, motivated by “global shifts in higher education” requiring “more flexible learning models for a broader student market”.

The SU council subsequently made strategic funding available for the institution’s hybrid learning drive, which has been used to extend information and communications technology at the institution, build lecturers’ capacity to develop online material, and appoint additional support personnel.

This meant the university was well positioned to weather the COVID-19 storm in 2020, when higher education institutions worldwide had to switch to emergency remote teaching, learning and assessment virtually overnight.

Contact tuition was resumed after lockdown restrictions were lifted in 2021, but online elements have remained part of the blend. Now, SU is well on its way to meet its target of substantially increasing its number of students enrolled in hybrid learning by 2025, Miné de Klerk, project manager of hybrid learning at SU, told University World News.