Shocking number of engineering dropouts at SA universities

Engineering is listed as a ‘scarce profession’ in South Africa despite the fact that many people do not have access to good quality infrastructure and services.

According to Prof Saurabh Sinha, executive dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, University of Johannesburg (UJ), a large number of engineering students tend to drop out of university within the first two years.

By fourth year, in certain technical disciplines, as few as 10% of the original first year class graduate in South African universities.

“When you ask an engineering student why he or she chose this field, they often say ‘to help people with technology’, or something similar,” said Sinha at a recent lecture hosted by Wits and the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE).

“But in the first two years, students face an overload of highly theoretical mathematics and physics, which have nothing to do with directly helping people. Today’s students are impatient – they wish to see sooner the relevance of what they are learning.”

“No wonder: ask most freshly graduated engineers what the price of delivering a kilowatt of electricity of a kiloliter of drinking water is, and they don’t know.”

Engineering students have been dropping out at similar rates for years, across the globe.

Given economic pressures –  graduates face multi-disciplinary expectations from potential employers – there’s an opportunity for engineering programs to be “re-engineered” to bring about the relevance, yet striving to meet these expectations, the professor said.

“It is time to act. We must change the nature of engineering education in South Africa, firstly to deliver more capable young engineers, and secondly to meet the crucial sustainable developmental goals for society,” said Sinha.

“Employers expect a graduate to walk in with solid technical experience combined with a track record in project management, team work, a grasp of financial management and more.”

“When I taught a third year electrical engineering design course, the students tried to figure out circuits with hundreds of components with mathematics. However, that approach was only suitable for circuits with a handful of components.”

“They had to be taught to use common sense, to develop that engineering ‘gut feel’, which is used to conceptualise and design complex systems on scrap pieces of paper.”

Sinha said that engineering students should work on community-based projects every year of their studies – to do scenario-based problem solving.

For example, a university could liaise with non-profit organisations and local municipalities. University project managers can ask the municipalities what challenges they face – for instance, water and sanitation challenges that need to be resolved.

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