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American Society for Engineering EducationSUMMER 2008Volume 17 | Number 9 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES


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FEATURE: DOUBLE WHAMMY - South Africa is desperate for trained engineers, but its students face major obstacles: poor high school preparation-a legacy of apartheid-and loss of instructors to high-paying industry jobs. - Story & Photography by Don BoroughsPalesa Mathe sits on the steps of a lecture hall in a second-year civil engineering course at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where the number of engineering students has grown so fast that the school needs to expand its facilities.  

Johannesburg, South Africa—It has been called a “war situation,” a “major crisis” and a “battle.” And the troops being sent to the front line are the engineering faculty of South Africa.

A severe shortage of engineers threatens the economic growth this emerging nation has enjoyed for nine straight years. The government wants universities to increase the number of engineering graduates by more than 70 percent, from 1,400 to 2,400 a year, and has put up nearly $100 million for engineering schools as a catalyst. But the extra money will go only part way to solving the problem. Across the country, universities are struggling to attract and keep engineering instructors. And South African high schools produce too few students qualified to enter engineering, a continuing legacy of 4½ decades of white-dominated apartheid rule.

With understaffed engineering departments training under-prepared students, universities are adopting a range of approaches, from gung-ho to go-slow, and experimenting with various techniques to find and educate future engineers. Yet no one is quite certain how the goal of a thousand more engineers a year can be achieved—or indeed, whether it is achievable at all.

Creaking Infrastructure

Signs of the need for engineers are everywhere in South Africa. The cover of a business magazine shouts, “WANTED: 68,000 engineers/artisans—Educashen Crysis” (sic). New or refurbished stadiums for the 2010 soccer World Cup are rising above every major city. And the creaking state of the nation’s core infrastructure has been brought into sharp relief by a series of rolling blackouts since the beginning of 2008. “Our backbone is broken in many places,” says Allyson Lawless, former president of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering, a professional group.

Rodwell Mangisi works on an electronics lab assignment at the University of the WitwatersrandWhile demand has been rising, the supply has been crimped by the emigration of experienced—mainly white—engineers. They are leaving in response both to rising crime and to affirmative-action hiring policies intended to correct past racial discrimination that favored whites. Although industry has mostly reverted to hiring any engineer it can find, regardless of color, government and parastatal corporations are still trying to re-balance the complexion of their technical staffs. “No public-sector department will take on a white engineer,” says Lawless.

At the same time, universities are trapped in a Catch-22 in which industry wants a new generation of engineers, yet hires faculty away from their teaching positions. “We can throw money at [the academic problem] and build buildings,” says Mark Alexander, acting dean of engineering and the built environment at the University of Cape Town, “but how you find staff to put in those buildings is another problem.”

Finding students adequately grounded in math and science to fill the classrooms is also a struggle. Out of a half-million students leaving South African high schools last year, fewer than 10,000 had the minimum test results in math and science that would qualify them for engineering school. Alexander would like UCT to produce its share of the thousand additional engineering graduates, but, he says, “within our constraints, it’s not realistic.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that when the government cried for help, a university located in the capital, Pretoria, rushed in with the greatest sense of urgency. The intake of first-year engineers at the University of Pretoria has leapt from 600 to 950 since 2002. “Basically, the aim is to double the number of graduates,” says Josua Meyer, chair of the School of Engineering. By 2010, the university expects to graduate nearly twice as many engineers as the next largest engineering school in the country. “South Africa is so far behind in training engineering students that we feel we must grow,” explains Roelf Sandenbergh, dean of engineering, built environment and information technology for Pretoria. The government has responded to this ambition by awarding UP more than $20 million for its engineering program. Combined with $30 million of the university’s own funds, the grant will be used to add three new buildings to the engineering campus. “The very positive atmosphere toward engineering at the moment is a unique opportunity,” says Sandenbergh. “We would like to make the most of the situation.”

Growth is happening elsewhere, as well. At the University of Stellenbosch, the chairman of civil engineering, Christo Bester, is amazed that his department’s freshman class has more than quintupled since 2002.

But other schools are being more cautious. University of Cape Town has opted for a “limited-growth scenario,” according to Duncan Fraser, a chemical engineering professor and assistant dean for academic development. Fraser and other UCT engineering academics are proud to have produced more black engineers than any other South African university, and they aim to increase their first-year intake by 3 percent a year. But experience has given them a heightened awareness of the challenges. For this academic year, 5,000 applications arrived, but only a fraction of the applicants met the minimum qualifications. “We’re already going as low as we can go” in accepting students, says Fraser. Any lower and “we’ll just double the work with minimal extra output.”

Competing with Industry

Nelson Ijumba, dean of engineering at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is also wary of taking in many more freshmen, not wanting to upset an already precarious student-teacher ratio. A full 46 percent of the places on his lecturing staff are currently unfilled, says Ijumba: “It’s as bad as that.” Pretoria’s Meyer complains that “staff are being head-hunted continuously.” Meyer, a professor of mechanical engineering, has himself turned down five private-sector offers in the past 12 months. Ijumba says even companies that sponsor scholarships for his students will then turn around and poach his teachers.

Money is the crux of the problem. Beatrys Lacquet, dean of engineering and the built environment at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), says that while industry used to pay double the salaries of academia, demand has pushed that multiple up to three and even four times faculty earnings. “Ooooh, the checkbooks are out, ‘What would you like?’” she quips.

Despite the dire shortage, engineering professors are typically paid the same as any other professor within South African universities. Some argue that this pay scale needs to change: “It’s not a crime to pay an engineering professor more than a professor of history,” contends Roy Marcus, who sits on the advisory group of the government-led initiative addressing the engineering deficit. “When the country is in a technical skills crisis, you would expect universities to throw more resources at engineering, not to treat all faculties the same.” Many also believe that the only solution is a further injection of government funds specifically targeted at engineering faculty salaries.

The supply of qualified students coming out of South African high schools could prove even more intractable. Last year 565,000 high-school seniors took the matriculation examinations needed for graduation. Of that number, only 9,436 achieved a C or higher grade on the advanced science exam, just one of the requirements to enter engineering school. Yet to meet the government’s goal, more than a quarter of those elite graduates will need to attain an engineering degree.

Two South African students work on a third-year lab project at the University of the WitwatersrandThe relatively poor preparation of black high school graduates has its roots in the apartheid racial-separation policy, abolished in the 1990s, which deprived blacks of a math and science education comparable to that of whites. The attitude underlying the policy was summed up in the 1950s by then Minister of Native Affairs Hendrik Verwoerd, who at one point stood before Parliament and asked, “What is the use of teaching a Bantu [African] child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?” Under the 1953 Bantu Education Act, such racist beliefs became law. After Verwoerd moved on to become Prime Minister, he won passage of the Extension of University Education Act, creating separate universities for black students. Not one of these schools offered a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

Like a Poker Game

Today, universities compete intensely for the small number of black high-school graduates who have overcome this legacy—as well as for top white students, who still enjoy a high standard of education. The University of Stellenbosch used to recruit engineering students within its home province, the Western Cape. Now the Stellenbosch faculty have started taking their road show to the far corners of the country, inviting promising high-school students to “engineering evenings” that are sometimes held in towns 800 miles from the campus. “If you don’t go out and find the students, you have a problem,” says Leon Lorenzen, deputy dean of engineering at the university.

With such a small pool to draw from, recruiting may only serve to shift potential engineering students from one campus to another. In the province of Gauteng, the engineering programs at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand are growing rapidly, while the University of Johannesburg has suffered a sudden drop in its intake. Mike Case, a Johannesburg engineering department head, notes, “We’re playing a poker game, almost; it’s a limited pack.”

Acknowledging the dearth of adequately prepared pupils, the government has suggested that universities will have to meet the thousand-more-engineers goal primarily by improving their graduation rate. Some university administrators agree. At KwaZulu-Natal, fewer than half of incoming students actually succeeded in getting an engineering degree in the past. Through better academic support, Dean Ijumba hopes to increase retention—known as “throughput”—by 50 percent.

But faculty at the renowned Cape Town and Wits universities question the plausibility of sharply increasing their own throughput. UCT engineering instructors have worked hard just to maintain a steady level of graduates as the complexion of the student body has shifted from 90 percent white 20 years ago to more than 50 percent black today, with many students coming from high schools that have not recovered from apartheid neglect. “If we could lift throughput by 2 to 3 percent in five years, we’d be happy,” says Alexander. At Wits, Lacquet says that she has a similar goal: “The percentage we are able to graduate in four years hasn’t changed in a hundred years.”

New Experiments

One school toying with a radical option for improving throughput is the University of Johannesburg. It may soon introduce a system of year-round instruction, breaking the academic year into three long semesters, or blocks. A student in a normal, four-year course of study would choose any two blocks in a year and take the third as vacation. The engineering school has prepared a timetable to allow the most capable and ambitious students to study during all three blocks and thereby complete a degree in two years and eight months. “Let the high-fliers fly,” suggests Case.

Various newspaper and magazine articles and advertisements lament the shortage of skilled workers in South Africa, particularly engineers.But most efforts to improve graduation rates will target those who are just trying to get through. “These students have potential, but when they’ve had 12 years of bad schooling, it takes a lot to get them over the hump,” says Cape Town’s Fraser, who adds, “I don’t think any university anywhere in world has students with such a wide range of capabilities.”

Cape Town and the University of Pretoria offer marginal students a program that stretches the first two years of study into three. In addition, UCT teaches first-year math differently for participants in its program, called “Aspect,” with twice the number of lectures and more intensive tutoring. Math exams are the same for all, however. Despite their weaker backgrounds, Aspect students end the year with better math exam results than their peers.

Starting this year, UCT has also significantly changed its staffing by hiring an “academic development lecturer” for each department within the school. These seven lecturers, mostly engineers with—or working toward—master’s degrees in education, are charged with improving the teaching and learning in their department. Fraser hopes that engineering faculty will now “take responsibility for the students’ learning, rather than just saying, ‘I’ve given my lecture; that’s it.’”

Improved tutoring is a goal at every engineering school. The University of KwaZulu-Natal has modeled its new program on the approach used at Virginia Commonwealth University, after Ijumba and several of his faculty spent four “eye-opening” days of exposure in Richmond last year. In Johannesburg, Wits has introduced a second layer of tutoring designed to rescue strugglers without the stigma created by having a special program for weaker students. Tutors who lead the weekly mandatory sessions for freshmen and sophomores have been trained to identify students who need help on the week’s assignments. These students are then offered an extra session that week, with top teachers and small groups. Dean Lacquet believes that these intensive à la carte tutorials will keep students from falling through the cracks, without using labels that “differentiate between those who can and those who can’t.”

The University of Pretoria has further extended its programs to include high school outreach. To help bolster the quality of high school graduates, the university’s engineering students are required to spend time teaching extra math and science in rural and township schools. In addition to the benefits for these youngsters, the university is able to target potential future engineers and plant in their minds the idea of pursuing engineering at Pretoria. Meyer believes this community service project has played a strong role in the university’s recruiting success.

For all of the headwinds engineering faculty are fighting, one phenomenon is giving them a strong push in the right direction: young South Africans are waking up to the idea that engineering is a career with a future. Stellenbosh’s Bester says his intake has quintupled largely because “every engineering student can get a job in South Africa.” And, he says, that message is getting out to school kids. Lawless, who has written two books lamenting the shortage of South African civil engineers, agrees, declaring, “the only career guidance you need is to put a lot of cranes on the skyline—and then you’ll get them.”

Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.




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