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Surveying and Geomatics Education Six Years Down The Road

Charles Paradzayi
Department of Surveying and Geomatics Midlands State
University Gweru, Zimbabwe
[email protected]

David Njike
Department of Surveying and Geomatics Midlands State
Un versity Gweru, Zimbabwe
[email protected]

Midlands State University (MSU) was established in 1999 when the State University in the Midlands Act of 1999 transformed Gweru Teachers College into Zimbabwe’s third state university.

This was a result of the Ministry of Higher Education and Technology’s devolution policy, which was aimed at expanding access to higher education by converting teachers and technical colleges into degree granting institutions. To date, the University has established the following seven faculties: Arts; Commerce; Education; Law; Natural Resources Management and Agriculture; Social Sciences and the Faculty of Science and Technology.

The Department of Surveying and Geomatics was established in 2000 under the Faculty of Science and Technology. The department is involved in teaching and research in Geomatics and it became the second surveying degree-awarding department in the country after the one at the University of Zimbabwe. The Department of Surveying and Geoinformatics at the University of Zimbabwe began offering a degree in Surveying from 1984.

The curriculum at the two departments is similar in most aspects but Midlands State University programme involves a full year of industrial exposure in the fourth year of learning.

The work related working period allows students to blend the theoretical concepts learned at the college and practical skills in the industry (Matyukira, 2003). Midlands State University runs fully semester-based system that allows Geomatics students to enlist for relevant modules from other departments such as Computer Science, Information Systems and Gender Studies.

The double barrel name (Surveying and Geomatics) of the department has its roots in legacy systems. The university administration felt the term Geomatics was relatively new and required lengthy explanations to the conservative policy-makers who were funding the establishment of the university.

This problem seems widespread in developing countries. Tembo et al (2002) contends that Land Surveying professionals in Botswana had difficulties accepting the concept of the Geomatics Engineer. Policymakers still perceive the Land Surveyor as a professional whose main function is to conquer virgin land and establish property corner beacons.

Current and Future Programs
At its inception, the department offered a four-year BSc honours degree in Surveying and Geomatics. The program was structured in such a way that students undertook internships, during vacations, with established private and public surveying organisations involved in Cadastral Surveying, Engineering Surveying, GIS and Mining Surveying among others. The disputed land reform program and unstable political environment triggered an economic downturn that made it difficult for the students to acquire the requisite industrial exposure during vacations. The degree structure was then revised in line with the university work-related learning (WRL) policy of placing students in industry for a full year during their fourth year of study. On successful completion of the WRL period, the students then return to university for their fifth and final year.

There are advanced plans to introduce a postgraduate diploma and a Master degree in GIS once both the human and technical resources allow. The proposed regulations for the two programs have gone through the University Academic Board. The programs aim at addressing the shortage of disaster personnel in the country who have practical training on the use of Geoinformation in disaster risk management. In this regard, the department is pursuing a collaborative partnership with the University Network on Disaster Risk Reduction in Africa (UNEDRA).

Research/Industry Linkages
The department has developed a number of linkages with industrial and professional bodies and it is also involved in a number of research initiatives both locally and regionally. At the local level, the department has cordial relationships with the Survey Institute of Zimbabwe (SIZ). Two of the staff members are hold office positions in the council that runs this professional body. The association with professional bodies enables the department to get critical feedback from surveying practitioners for the positive development of the curriculum. The department has an informal staff exchange relationship with the department at the University of Zimbabwe. The department works closely with the Department of the Surveyor-General and has carried out joint research with members of staff from this national mapping organisation.

The department has also created synergies with international research networks. It is currently an active member of the University Network on Disaster Risk Reduction in Africa (UNEDRA). The network is involved with capacity building and research in the use of geoinformation in disaster risk reduction in Africa. The network has developed a Masters program curriculum in the use of geoinformation for disaster management, which can be tailor-made to suit the prevailing conditions in the country of the participating member universities.

As of June 2006, 60 graduates have passed through the department and only 13% of the graduates are female. Most of these have been absorbed by the local industry while a few are now employed in the Diaspora (European and African countries). The South African land surveying body, PLATO, is in the process of assessing the degree program so that MSU graduates can undertake articles to become Professional Land Surveyors in that country. This is an interesting development in light of the long time it has taken the county’s legislative system to make the necessary amendments to the Land Survey Act (Chapter 20:19) so that graduates from the department can be recognised for training in the cadastral discipline in Zimbabwe.

A number of authors, Rüther (2003) and Nwilo et al (2004) among others, have outlined the difficulties that departments of Surveying and Geomatics face on the African continent in their pursuit of delivering good quality geomatics education. The department at Midlands State University has faced by a number of challenges, most of them emanating from the unstable socio-economic environment prevailing in the country. The most pressing challenges include shortage of qualified human resources, limited technical resources and dwindling student numbers among others.

Human resources
The department is experiencing a very high staff turnover, which is impacting negatively on the quality of teaching. The department has resorted to employing teaching assistants – most of whom lack industrial exposure and experience. The problem is further compounded by the university’s failure to send the teaching assistants for staff development abroad due to the shortage of foreign currency to meet the educational costs. The lack of SDF funds is threatening the continued supply of Geomatics professionals for the academic sector, as there is no institution offering postgraduate programs in the country at the moment. This is mainly due to non-availability of the requisite professionals (experienced Masters and PhDs) to teach at postgraduate level. The poor salaries at universities are also a cause of concern as they are not attractive enough to lure expatriates and Zimbabwean professionals in the Diaspora to come and teach at universities in Zimbabwe. This status quo forces academics to spend a significant amount of their time on consulting and other activities to ‘make ends meet’ (Rüther, 2003), leaving little time for university business of research. This is further aggravated by limited research funds and facilities. The funds, in most instances if available, are not sufficient to adequately support the research efforts. At the same time, international donors seem to shun funding institutions in countries that have unstable socio-economic and political stability.

Technical resources
The department is struggling to equip its labs to international standards. Shortage of foreign currency and budgetary constraints are being cited as the major hindrance to this objective. Although the department has received funds for capitalisation, the computer lab is not yet fully equipped and it has limited computer hardware and software. ESRITM software donation in 2003 has gone a long way in exposing students to GIS software. The department still needs to purchase more state of the art surveying (Total Stations and GPS receivers) and computer equipment because what it has acquired up to now is inadequate.

Office and classroom facilities are poor and students move chairs from one lecture room to the next. On average, three staff members share an office as well as a single computer. The situation is more pathetic when we look at the student-to-computer ratio. For the past three years, efforts to obtain computers for the departmental lab have been constrained by budgetary constraints. However, the university has 512MB bandwidth fibre-optic Internet connection that has gone a long way in availing much needed resources for the staff members and students. With limited teaching aids and student handouts becoming difficult to produce, the university website has created an avenue for sharing information between the staff and the students. However, Zimbabwe is faced with energy shortages and electricity blackouts are becoming a common occurrence. Although the university has a standby generator, the power outages tend to disrupt the smooth flow of learning and research activities and are also impacting negatively on the Internet connectivity.

Dwindling student numbers
The extension of the degree program to five years seems to have negatively impacted on the student enrolment figures in the department. This may be compounded by the fact that University of Zimbabwe is still offering a four-year equivalent program. At the same time, there is a disturbing trend where short listed candidates fail to enrol for the degree program. On average, the uptake of places is around 20%. This trend is cause for concern as the department risk not being a viable business unit. This may force the authorities to pull the plug as what happened in South Africa over the last decade or so (Rüther, 2003) where Surveying departments were closed in a number of universities.

Legislation bottlenecks
One of the pressing challenges is the legislative impediment regarding the recognition of students for cadastral surveying practice. As Matyukira (2003) observed, the current legislation only recognised the University of Zimbabwe degree for graduates to embark on the Cadastral Surveying career. However, the pressure to issue 99-year leases to new landowners under the fast track land reform program has forced the authorities to expedite the legislative changes so that graduates from the department can be registered Land Surveyors.

The Council of Land Surveyors (the body that oversees the registration of land surveyors) has since assessed the departmental curriculum and has made recommendations to effect the necessary changes to the legislation. Guvaza (2006) has indicated that legislative amendments to allow students from Midlands State University to register as Land Surveyors-in-training (and eventually become Registered Land Surveyors) according to the Land Survey Act were now with the Attorney General’s department and should be effected in the near future. Continuous Professional Development
Any species that fails to adapt to its changing environment becomes a prime candidate for extinction. Nwilo et al (2004) notes that Africa lacks well-trained academia to teach or train both old and new students in the new emerging geoinformation techniques. Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is the fundamental survival technique that the Surveying and Geomatics profession must adopt if it is to avoid this natural selection process.

In Zimbabwe, the land reform program calls for cost effective and affordable surveying techniques to survey land parcels for enhanced land tenure purposes. One of these techniques involves GPS, which some of the old surveyors are not conversant with and the department can play a leading role in training practitioners in the new technique to avoid the “black box” approach.

The department can organize refresher courses in other emerging disciplines such as spatial data infrastructures, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Remote Sensing in partnership with professional bodies such as the Survey Institute of Zimbabwe.

Conclusions and Recommendations
The undergraduate and postgraduate programs are in jeopardy due to the low morale among staff members as the remuneration in the Diaspora tends to be more attractive than at home by far. Further to that, the country is not producing Masters or PhD graduates for reasons cited elsewhere in this paper. The drop in student numbers is a cause of concern and lack of awareness has been cited as a possible cause. The department needs to embark on a vigorous marketing program in conjunction with the Survey Institute of Zimbabwe. The Division of Geomatics at the University of Cape Town runs a similar program and the department can draw lessons from its experience. At the same time the SIZ should become more visible so that young scientists can learn about the profession and hopefully, decide to follow a career in Geomatics.

The department has made great strides to acquire equipment under the prevailing economic circumstances and it offers relatively high training to students. Manufacturers of surveying hardware and developers of geomatics software are encouraged to donate excess resources as these will go a long way in easing the critical shortage of equipment in the department. At the same time, the department is seeking collaborative partnerships with Geomatics professionals from Asia that will create synergies for the continued growth of the department into a formidable force to reckon with in Geomatics education in Sub Saharan Africa.