Whither engineering and technological education?


By Emeritus Professor Dayantha Wijeyesekera

Chancellor, University of Vocational Technology Former Vice Chancellor Open University of Sri Lanka & former Vice Chancellor, University of Moratuwa Past President, Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka

A new year is dawning new faculties of engineering and also technology are afoot. But, well established standards of qualty and traditions expected by professional and academic bodies should be maintained not only for benefit of the posterity but also to avoid unnecessary student crises and high costs for continuation of unplanned programmes.

As the only Chartered Engineer in the Council of South Eastern University Oluvil at that time I called for caution but my concerns went unheeded and the repurcussions are now evident with student unrest, heavy expenditure in attempting to continue the programme and above all risking academic and professional standards. Such hasty unplanned decisions were prevalent even in the medical education some years ago with similar repurcussions and the recovery to acceptable levels are being just reached. Hence, Technocrats should engineer the decision- making process to safeguard the profession. Of course, I am getting quite used to watching my predictions coming true on unplanned Technical and Vocational education and on some engineering projects mainly on Traffic Engineering!

Sri Lanka can be proud of the development of engineering and technological education dating back to 1893, when the Maradana Technical College came into being. The BSc (Eng) external degree of the University of London was the forerunner to the BSc Eng degree (Ceylon) which commenced at the University of Colombo, thereafter shifted to University of Peradeniya. The Universities of Moratuwa and Ruhuna commenced their degree programmes in engineering later and now the Engineering Faculties of these three Conventional Universities conduct the BSc (Eng) degree programmes acceptable to the Professional bodies of Engineering. Since of late the South Eastern University has commenced the BSc (Eng) degree programme. In addition to the above the Open University of Sri Lanka through Open and Distance Learning conducts the BTech (Eng) degree programme which is also acceptable to the Professional body, together with the University of Uva Wellasa conducting a BTech degree programme.

The University of Vocational Technology has also admitted five batches of students for the BTech degree programme for those who proceeded though the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) system based on competency based training and assessment and also through lateral entry and upward mobility for those with mid-level technological qualifications. The University also provides an avenue to obtain Bachelor of Education in Technology, BEd (Tech) for those who wish to pursue a career in Technical Teaching from Senior Secondary school level right through to the Technical and Vocational Education upto degree level.

In addition to the degree level engineering education indicated above already in existence, technological education at different levels of Certificate, Diploma, Higher diploma and NVQ are conducted islandwide. Hence the three delivery systems of engineering and technological education in the country are like the three legs of a tripod and the goal should be to gain the long-sighted view to produce the much needed technocrats for the country. The three legs as shown in the diagram are (a) conventional university education (b) open and distence learning (c) competency based training and assessment.

While there should be interaction between the three legs each bearing its own weight for stability, there should not be overlap or duplication as it would then result in a collapse of the system due to instablity. For example those involved in conventional system of education could while focussing mainly on lecture /laboratory room based face to face teaching should also focus on competencies and also use open and distance learning techniques where applicable. Those expected to focus mainly on Open and distance learning should, while testing for competencies, adopt minimal lecture room face to face deliveries and similary those concentrating on competency based training and assessments should not replace it by lecture room deliveries and stereotype examinations or depend solely on distance learning techniques. Interaction is desirable but total replacement which is counter-productive and unstable.

With the rapid development efforts in the country, there is undoubtedly a dearth of engineers, technological and craft level personnel. To meet such a need, careful planning is essential to identify the fields, levels and the quantum with the essential requirement of quality and standards being maintained. While emerging technologies and engineering fields are surfacing such as Bio-Medical Engineering, Oil and Gas Engineering, Mechatronics, Nanotechnolgy etc it is also prudent to focus on wider scenarios of engineering such as Social Engineering, Value Engineering etc.

While it has been announced that new engineering faculties and colleges are being established, unless quality standards and the real needs are achieved, the resources utilized would be a waste with the graduates and diplomates produced not being acceptable to the industry and the professional bodies.

While it is a laudable effort to provide such tertiary education to produce graduates and diplomates , unless the main ingredient of quality and employability are evident, all the efforts and investments will be of no avail resulting in further burdens of un-employed products.

To find a panacea for such challenges there is sufficient local expertise available with further minimal contribution of expensive international expertise for highly specialized areas not available in the country locally.

For the development of both engineering and technological education an essential feature will be the interaction between the industry and the academia at all levels starting from curriculum development and right through to graduation and recruitment of both academic staff and also graduate placement.

Among those who secure good results at the GCE O/L are those who pass the GCE A/L to enter the state conventional universities. Others who fail the GCE O/L or do not obtain enough marks at the GCE A/L consider them as "failures". There may also be those who prefer to go into tertiary education soon after GCE O/L. As for studentings pursuing engineering and technological education and other tertiary education courses through Professional education, vocational education, skills development and also through open education while it still exists in the country the need is felt for effective career guidance and a change in the mindset of parents teachers and peers.

In the recent past there have been a hue and cry on the establishment of "University Colleges" outside the Ministry of Higher Education which is the only authorized body by virtue of the provisions of the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978 as amended to use the words "University" unless through a separate Act of Parliament for the purpose. Prior to that there had been Junior Universities, Affiliated University Colleges etc and it is with sadness that one recalls the fate that befell them.

While the Act No 31 of the University of Vocational Technology provides for the establishment of institutes and schools, it does not provide for the establishment of University Colleges. The word "University "should not be misused or considered indispensable. After all, the world’s leading seat of Higher Learning is not called a university, but Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and examples from Asia are the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). It is not the name of the place that matters. It was the Institute of Practical Technology, Katubedda (IPT) founded in 1960 which has now evolved into one of the leading Universities in the country as University of Moratuwa through a well planned academic and professional process.

Let us act wisely in providing proper career guidance and counselling to make the best use of the planning, establishing and implementing of engineering and technological education which should be manifested rationally either through state funding and/or donor funding, the sole agenda being national development. Furthermore, the planning of the establishment of Faculties of Engineering and also Faculties of Technology should be done very rationally maintaining requisite quality standards and resources which should include qualified staff, laboratory facilities and other physical facilities from the very inception as part of a well planned programme as evident in the evolution of the leading Engineering faculties. institutes of Ttechnology and also some degree awarding institutes.

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