Inside out: Africa needs to find its own training solutions


Professor Wikus van Niekerk is using his experiences studying his EMBA at the GSB to refine his ideas about how to find new ways to manage academic institutions in an emerging market context

In the process of finishing off his MBA in Executive Management (EMBA) at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB), Professor Wikus van Niekerk is an academic who understands, from the inside out, the need for training institutions to evolve.

The newly appointed Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University, Van Niekerk is currently a Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and Director of the university's Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies where he is daily confronted with the challenges facing the tertiary education sector. 

He readily admits that his career usually keeps him much too occupied for other pursuits. "I actually enrolled in the EMBA before applying for the position of Dean of the Engineering Faculty,"he says. But it turned out to be a perfect match for him as it has allowed him to explore his research passion -how to find new ways to manage academic institutions in an emerging market context - with a whole new lens. 

"Engineering schools and faculties here face a number of significant challenges that do not exist in developed countries, and we need to adopt a new approach to training if we are to unlock the African continent's potential,"Van Niekerk says. 

A study completed last year by the World Economic Forum has indicated that one of the most significant underlying causes of unemployment is an inadequately educated workforce. The study predicts that this issue is likely to be amplified in the coming years, with unemployment in South Africa alone increasing sharply from the current 25% over the coming years.

A key statistic to note, says Van Niekerk, is the fact that enrolment in engineering and technology training programmes in the country has remained consistent at below 100 000 students per year since 2009, while the population has grown at a rate of 1.3% year-on-year over the same period. 

"It is clear that changing our approach to how we find candidates and train engineers is paramount. And one of the biggest challenges that Africa faces in that regard, is finding candidates who are well-prepared for the demanding engineering programmes. Universities in the first-world take on candidates who have already received a strong base education in the fields that they want to study. In Africa we mostly receive new candidates directly out of school, and without an adequate base-line education in science and mathematics,"he notes. 

"I believe that there are also changes that faculties need to make in order to ensure higher rates of success and delivery of useful engineers for industry.Chief among these is increased cooperation with industry to produce workplace-ready recruits. We also need to understand the challenges that students and graduates face in the African context, and then work to fill those knowledge gaps,"Van Niekerk adds. 

Interaction with industry is an area where the GSB also stands out, and this is one of the many
positives that Van Niekerk says stood out for him on the EMBA. "This course, and being a student again, has also provided me with a great insight into the experiences of the student, which also helps me to shape my perspective as a service provider in this field,"he adds. 

"After completing this course, I can honestly say to current and prospective students to trust the process that the GSB has in place. The value of academic institutions working in close proximity to the major stakeholders and organisations within their field cannot be understated,"Van Niekerk concludes.




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