Poor quality graduates? Blame it on lack of training in practical skills

Saturday November 7 2015

The executive director and principal

The executive director and principal investigator of Makerere University’s Kiira Motors Project Stevens Tickodri-Togboa. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU  

The first production of the Kiira EV car is expected in 2019, more than eight years after it was designed. Does it worry you that the passing of time could render the technology obsolete?

These days the production for things like cars is not done fully in one factory or plant. What happens is that I as an engineer design the car – define the engine, its capacity, weight etc. — then get specialists to make it as per my specifications. The engine will then be brought to my factory and fitted into the car.

In other words, we outsource the various production processes, meaning it is incumbent upon the concerned parties to update the technology. So if the engine I require in 2019 is different from today’s, then the relevant engine will be produced.

So what do you have ... a patent for the engineering design? And how is the Kiira EV different from other cars on the market?

The idea behind the Kiira EV was to improve the skills of our youth so that they can think and design, just like other professionals across the globe. We achieved our objective. It is not really about creating a factory that will be producing engines.

The economics is such that if you produce one, it will be very costly, so we shall outsource the production of this engine in the initial years. However, if we think we should produce engines and even sell them rather than the car, then we shall do that in later years. Think about say the A-Class, which is produced in Finland for German car brand Mercedes Benz. It is the same principle with Kiira EV. This is our engine. And it is powered by batteries, not internal combustion engines.

Who qualifies to join the car project?

In the first year, I teach the students mathematics and pick a few from the second year. The mathematics comes into play when I ask them to apply it in designing something. I grow with them until they graduate with their bachelor’s degree. When they graduate, I keep them on the project while they study for their masters degrees.

Where does the funding come from?

The government has been supportive. In 2009 for example, President Museveni gave $10 million for a research fund to the college of Engineering, Arts and Technology in support of such projects.

If I were to wait for that car, how much would I expect to pay?

Say about $25,000 – for a brand new car. That would be slightly less than an equivalent car on the market.

Universities have always complained about limited resources, which critics say is to blame for the quality of graduates leaving our universities. Do you agree? As minister for higher education, do we expect any changes?

It is not so much about the funding, but how we have structured our education system. The challenge of poor quality graduates is because our education system is not comprehensive enough right from primary school. During my time, we had carpentry, metal work, tailoring... name it... I can even tailor my own suit neatly. With such skills, I could choose between vocational or university education.

Nowadays, there is hardly any practical learning in our schools. Because we are aspiring to obtain degrees, we rush through the system and end up without practical skills.

Our children should learn different skills, so that by the time they are aged 18, they can choose a career path based on their talents. We could still fund universities as they are but they will still produce graduates who are not ideal.

What can be done?

Parents and teachers should identify and support the growth of these children’s talents. Then as government, we can invest in putting up the relevant structures to develop that talent.

In Uganda, vocational training is designed for those who failed to make it for formal training in universities and colleges, making it unpopular. Besides, getting a job is tricky. For example, operators of motor vehicle garages in Kampala demand entrance fees averaging Ush500,000 ($139) before a qualified mechanic can get a job. How can we change such attitudes?

When a child does well, you never hear them talk of taking vocational studies. Parents too want their well-performing children in popular colleges and universities which do not take the vocational studies path. In a country like Germany, children from anywhere can take vocational studies. If I were in Europe, I would have no problem if my children chose vocational studies, but here in Uganda I would have a problem as a parent.

We need to redesign our system. We need to take time to persuade parents that going to university is not the only way out. We need a system where there are fewer degree holders, and more middle cadre workers. As an engineer, I need about 10 technical people to support my thinking. But if you are going to have 100,000 engineers and 100,000 technical people, you will not deliver. That is where our problem lies.

Is the government investing in that?

Yes, we are in the process. For example, I have just been to Chema Vocational in Masindi District. They got assistance from the Islamic Development Bank; we are making it a centre of excellence. Another school in Sasila in Nakasongola District will also become a centre of excellence.