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Engineering Training is One of the Priorities for UNESCO. Why?

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The shortage of engineers is a global problem that has slowed down technological progress all over the world. There is a lack of high-qualified engineers in many countries - Russia, America, Australia, Canada, European countries. Low prestige of the profession and complexity of the educational system are, as cited by experts, the reasons why young people rarely choose an engineering career path.

Although many universities all around the world invest in the popularisation of the engineering profession, lack of engineering specialists is a lot more complex problem that one would think it is. Some experts emphasise that most properly certified engineers are not ready for employment and instead decide to work in other areas. At the same time, younger generations tend to move to other countries attracted by better benefits. Other problems include gender inequality, low salaries combined with high responsibility, as well as misperceptions about the essence of engineering work, such as thinking that engineering jobs are dull and tiresome. It must also be noted that university knowledge alone is not enough to become a demanded specialist, but a certain amount of work experience is crucial.

Lack of additional skills is a problem that many young engineers are facing nowadays, which is at the same time a challenge for engineering universities. The International Competence Centre for Mining-Engineering Education under the auspices of UNESCO has been working on this issue in St. Petersburg. Moreover, the importance of cooperation in this area between UNESCO Centres and Institutes should have been one of the key topics for discussion at the World Engineering Day. The event, which would it have taken place would be the first of its kind, was scheduled for the 4th of March and was supposed to be held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Due to the outbreak of coronavirus, the first-time-ever event was cancelled, but Dr Peggy Oti-Boateng, the Senior Programme Specialist for Science and Technology, however, agreed to be interviewed by 'Forpost'.

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- Most Russians think UNESCO’s only role is to preserve cultural heritage. But now you are organising the World Engineering Day, even if it was postponed. What was your reasoning here?

- First of all, UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. To put it differently, UNESCO is not only about culture but also science, and science is what drives forward education and culture; it connects them all together. That is why it is a vital task for UNESCO to promote collaboration in sciences. Science is, of course, not only human and social sciences but also natural sciences. Engineering is an applied science, a significant one when taking into consideration the challenge of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and engineering science is what makes it possible to reach these targets.

- You are one of the executives at UNESCO for the Department of International and Regional Institutes and Centres. What was the primary reason for developing this structure within UNESCO? How and when did it happen?

- The reason for developing this structure is that UNESCO is, in a way, a centre or a laboratory. We create and materialise new ideas. We do the standard-setting. UNESCO is also a place for supporting partnership initiatives and globalisation trends. UNESCO Institutes and Centres, as we think, help us solve all these issues. Through these networks we have created, we can share scientific information, innovative solutions, we build partnerships and establish research projects in various fields - whether it be engineering or some cultural or educational activities. If we talk about my area of work, the task is to expand the network of UNESCO Institutes and Centres and thus provide opportunities for scientific and technical advice, help with innovation practices and foster science. What we need in this day and age are new policies we can stick to in our daily routines. Then if we encounter some false statements, we will be able to compare it with confirmed data. Scientific evidence is very important, and the network of UNESCO's centres - they bring it in by joining their resources together. So this is the answer. It is why we have established this structure - to promote these ideas and facilitate needed changes.

As for the centres themselves, we have two Category 1 Science Institutes and Centres

- UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education and International Centre for Theoretical Physics. And then we have Category 2 Institutes and Centres. As of now, 74 of them are within the science field. Altogether, this is a huge resource we own and that we can use to reach our targets.

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- What does ‘competency’ mean for UNESCO? In your opinion, why the diploma certificate is not enough for an engineer, but they also need additional skills and knowledge?

- Based on my own experience, I would say that an engineer is not an engineer until he has gained some practical experience. A diploma certificate is not enough. Engineering training should include both off-the-job and on-the-job training. I would also like to underline the importance of tutorship. There has got to be someone in the tutorly position who can help with training on the job, tutor the trainee, help with practicalities and give a possibility to grow. It is similar to the medical system. One cannot graduate and start instantly treating people. They are not doctors yet. They need practice, a tutor to guide them. The same applies to engineers. But if we want them to have practice, we need industries to come in and hire engineering students or graduates as interns. They need to accept them and provide them an opportunity of on-the-job training.

Added skills are also essential. Engineers do not work with machines alone but also with people. They are solving solutions of people. And we need engineers to understand that.

- Your area of expertise is the supervision of scientific activities. UNESCO’s regional and international centres - are they scientific centres?

- Some of our international and regional centres are scientific centres, but they work in different fields. For instance, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences mainly focuses on research and training in mathematics. Some other centres can focus on, for example, chemistry, biology, biodiversity, water sciences etc. Of course, we have centres specialising in engineering sciences - one of them is the International Competence Centre for Mining-Engineering Education in St. Petersburg.

To illustrate, we have the Regional Centre for Groundwater Resources Education, Training and Research in East Africa (RCGRE). The Centre is based in Kenya, and its purpose is to coordinate all water-related activities in the region and ensure water security. Besides, RCGRE provides training, works on developing new policies with engaging multi-stakeholders in that process, and is involved in research projects employed in the East-African region.

All these areas of science, these centres I have mentioned, and the unmentioned ones, are significant for UNESCO. But we also highly value our work in other fields - culture, education. The work our centres have been doing to preserve cultural heritage is by no means less crucial than training and educating people or scientific activities.

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- How would you rate the efficiency of Institutes and Centres under the auspices of UNESCO?

- It varies a lot. One of the key elements here is funding. If there is sufficient funding, that particular centre can achieve better results. One of the examples in the Competence Centre in St. Petersburg. It is one of the top-performing centres, mainly because of the good funding.

Support from the government is also essential. I want to mention Chinese centres as examples. The Government of China heavily supports them, and the situation is similar in Singapore and Ghana. Last year, the Government of Ghana allocated €3 million to establish two category 2 centres - one of them specialises in the education centre, the other one in mathematics. Moreover, the local government will continue to funnel money for development purposes - €3 million annually.

Not all of the centres have these resources, this amount of support. We, in UNESCO, would like those who are in a better position help the rest who are struggling due to having fewer resources, less funding, less support. As a suggestion, the Competence Centre in St. Petersburg could join forces with another centre, for example, some African centre that does not have the same opportunities and is poorly funded but is carrying out research in the related area of science. We think this form of collaboration could be useful and beneficial for both parties.

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- From your point of view, what tasks should Russian Competence Centre for Mining-Engineering Education exercise?

- There is a lot that can be done. Mining education is the key issue, and partnering with African countries and their corresponding governments to promote education and thus facilitate businesses working in the region to switch to sustainable mining is one of the possible work areas. The situation in African countries is deeply concerning; negative news is mostly coming from this region. Economies of African countries are also heavily reliant on the mining sector. Our aim, as we see it, is to help them mine sustainably. At the same time, these countries need to benefit from mining activities; they need to earn profits on it, not just export raw materials.

- If we go back to the postponed World Engineering Day, what is the mission of this event from UNESCO's perspective?

-We had a perfectly good programme scheduled here, but the event, as you know, was cancelled. Otherwise, it would have been a rare chance for engineers from all over the world to gather in one place and celebrate the importance of engineering. Engineering work is of particular significance, taking into account its role in sustainable development. There is a global problem - people do not understand how important engineering works are; they take it for granted. We want that to change. We want people to realise the relevance and usefulness of engineering solutions.

Another goal we set is to attract more youth, make them interested in studying engineering. The shortage of engineers is a global challenge - though the figures vary for different countries - we need to overcome. Therefore, we want to inspire youths, to motivate them to apply for engineering specialities. These are the targets we set for this event. We also hope that other countries take the initiative forward - Russia among them - and help to popularise engineering.

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- In what way Russian engineers can co-participate in UN programmes? In which programmes?

- We have got lots of programmes - water sciences, biotechnologies, biodiversity, engineering, and many other areas of science. Even now, as coronavirus is spreading globally, we need engineers. We need solutions on how can we isolate diseased, and it is engineering work to design and build the facilities where we can move those who are ill. We need tools to communicate with infected people remotely - it is also up to engineers. Collecting data, putting it together, exploring distance communication opportunities - all of these are the tasks for engineers to solve. In connection with this, an important question is why people do not take engineering activities seriously, why only few of them are willing to become engineers. It is a fact that engineering specialists are never out of work, and we hope that more young people will reevaluate an engineering career path. Our world is facing unforeseen challenges, and the value of engineering in solving them cannot be underestimated.

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Previously it became known that the University of Johannesburg in South Africa might soon become a key partner university for the International Competence Centre for Mining-Engineering Education under the auspices of UNESCO. In his interview to 'Forpost', Dr Hennie Grobler told more about the educational system of South Africaand the disciplines future mining graduates should study. He also explained why university's graduates would not encounter any difficulties if they decide to apply for a job in American, Australian, or Canadian companies.