History ... - School of Electrical, Electronics and Computer Engineering

By Rose Edwards,2014-11-28 05:37
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History ... - School of Electrical, Electronics and Computer Engineering

    The School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering

    at the

    University of KwaZulu-Natal

    The University of KwaZulu-Natal was formed on 1 January 2004 as a result of the merger between the University of Durban-Westville and the University of Natal. A huge University was formed with close to 40 000 students, 6 000 academic staff. The new university brings together the rich histories of both the former Universities. The administrative structure clustered the University into 4 colleges which administered 8 Faculties that were responsible for 54 Schools. The School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering is in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science in the Faculty of Engineering. The School was formed from the merger of the Department of Electrical Engineering at the former University of Durban Westville (UDW) and the School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering at the former University of Natal (UN). The two merged departments had completely different backgrounds; one previously under-resourced and struggling to survive while the other was well established and resourced with a history of academic excellence and research. In this article we review the history of the two merged partners.

    Department of Electrical Engineering

    at the

    University of Durban Westville

    The University of Durban-Westville (UDW) started as a University College of the University of South Africa in 1961. It was intended to serve the Indian community who the apartheid regime, in those days, had accepted that they were a permanent member of the South African Society and their upward mobility was essential. The University was initially located at Salisbury Island in the Durban Harbour and started with 114 students. It grew rapidly as its services and academic disciplines expanded and in 1972 it moved to a new campus 12 km to the west of central Durban, the current location of the Westville campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

    The University of

    Durban Westville

    in 1978. H1 is the

    Faculty of


    In 1973 a Department of Engineering was formed under the Faculty of Science and its first Head was Professor R P S Horn. There was only one curriculum with courses taken from Electrical, Mechanical and Chemical Engineering in a 6 year programme leading to the degree of Bachelor of Engineering. Compared to other institutions in the country a six-year curriculum was only unique to UDW. The Department of Engineering was located in Block H1 together with Department of Psychology. In 1978 electives were introduced leading to specialisation in Civil, Electrical, Chemical and Mechanical Engineering.

    Records show that the Faculty of Engineering came into existence in 1979 with its first Dean, Prof R M Morris. The degrees awarded included B.Eng., M.Eng. and D.Eng. It is noted that 1980 saw the end of the UDW prescribed 6 year programme. In 1981 under the Dean, Prof T H Bennet four departments were formed; Chemical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. All programmes were four-year programmes. Prof R P S Horn was the first Head of Department for Electrical Engineering. In 1984 UDW opened up and accepted students of all races. The University became a popular institution for African students and opened an opportunity for them to study engineering. It was however not so attractive for academics in engineering. Over the years the Department of Electrical Engineering appeared to struggle to get enough academic staff and records show that there was no Head of Department and only three academic staff in 1987.

    Professor Edward Eitelberg took over as Head of Department in 1988. In 1991 he added a specialisation in Control Engineering to the Electrical Engineering programme thus creating a Department of Electrical and Control Engineering. This addition was unique to the UDW programme only and this was probably the reason it did not receive much support. There were disagreements characterised by student protests supported by strong staff unions that echoed the need for change. The Head of Electrical Engineering was incapacitated and in 1992 the department lost its ECSA accreditation. An acting Head of Department Mr S Mudally was appointed and after proving to be ineffective Prof Ahmed Bawa from the Faculty of Science was appointed to be the caretaker Head. New staff from other countries in Africa and beyond were recruited. A new Head of Department Professor R Appiah was appointed to stabilise the Department and he lead it to its conditional accreditation in 1996. Prof Appiah changed the curricular and introduced degree programmes in Electrical Engineering with specialisation in Light Current and Heavy Current. In 1999 when Prof SH Mneney was Head the Department regained its full accreditation.

    The student numbers grew and the Department was admitting students who were mainly coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of them took longer to complete the degree programmes or never completed at all. The throughput was low and in the year 2000, under the Vice Chancellor Prof Mapule Ramashalla, the viability of the Faculty Engineering at UDW was questioned leading to almost its closure. The consequence of this threat to close was that Faculty of Engineering was once again integrated into the Faculty of Science as one of the Schools(same meaning as a Department). The uncertainty and instability lead to a number of academic staff in engineering leaving the University. The Department of Civil Engineering, for instance, that had built a formidable staff complement lost all its academic staff.

    A new Vice Chancellor Dr Saths Cooper was installed at the beginning of 2003 and among his first decisions was to re-create the Faculty of Engineering. The Head of Electrical Engineering

    Department at this time was Mr Rathi Sewsunker and he was followed by Prof A Chol who lead the Department in the merger negotiations in 2004.

    The Natal University College was founded in 1910 in Pietermaritzburg. It was a multi-campus institution that was extended to Durban after the first World War. From it emerged the University of Natal which was granted independent University status in 1949 due to its rapid growth in student numbers, its wide range of courses and its achievements. In August 1922, the Natal University College Council resolved to establish in Durban Faculties of Engineering and Commerce that were initially housed in the Natal Technical College. Professor Hugh Clark was appointed as the first Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering in 1923. The Engineering and Commerce Students moved to the Howard College building in 1931 when the building was completed.

    Howard College Building; the location of

    Electrical engineering in 1931

    In 1954, on Professor Clark’s retirement Professor Phillips was appointed Head of Department. By 1964, the Howard College building was unable to contain the growth of students and Electrical Engineering moved into its own new three-storey building, which was equipped with many more laboratories to cater for high voltage, machines, valves, standardisation, telecommunications, electronics, illumination and acoustics. Professor Phillips was appointed as Vice-Principal (Durban) in 1963 and remained Head of Department until 1971 when Professor Ron Hellawell, who pioneered work in high voltage in Natal, was appointed Head of Department. In the same year two new chairs were created, Prof Ron Harley was appointed to the chair of Electro-Dynamic Machinery and Control and Professor Lee Nattrass to the chair of Light Current. The Department now had an academic staff of 11 to provide for the increased enrolment. In 1972, the Electrical Engineering building was enlarged by adding on an additional three floors containing many more laboratories including a Machine Research Laboratory, a Digital Processes Laboratory and a Radiation Laboratory on the roof of the building with facilities for testing a wide range of antennas. Research in the 1970's was conducted in a wide range of disciplines. In 1971 the Department took delivery of its first computer, a HP2116 complete with 16kbytes of RAM. Then in 1974 the Digital Processes Laboratory was equipped with a HP2100 computer with 32kBytes of RAM and 4 terminals. This computer became the work horse of the Department and supported research in many disciplines.

    Many changes occurred during the 90's. Several staff had retired and a number of young staff were appointed who brought a wave of fresh ideas to teaching and research. In 1995 Professor Nattrass retired as Head of the Department of Electronic Engineering, while in 1998 Professor Harley’s term as Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering came to an end. The University had conducted a major restructuring exercise and as a result in 1999 the two departments were combined to form what is referred to as a School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Professor Broadhurst was appointed as its first Head. There were two programmes; Electrical Engineering and Electronic Engineering each under a Programme Director. Prof Broadhurst’s term as Head of Department ended in 2001 and was

    replaced by Prof Fambirai Takawira. A new programme, Computer Engineering, was approved and took its first intake in 2001. The School was renamed as the School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering and it had a student population of about 600 and an academic staff complement of 20 staff and support staff of 20. While the Computer Engineering Programme received its first accreditation visit the other two programmes got full accreditation in 2003. Prof Fambirai Takawira lead the School into the merger negotiations.

    The Merged School

    The merger negotiations were difficult and sensitive. Issues ranged from the location of the new Faculty of Engineering to curricular to be followed and matters related to students and staff. The University Executive approved the proposal from the University Planning Committee on the location of faculties. Engineering was to be located at the Howard College [HC] campus as this campus had much more engineering facilities and had the capacity to absorb all the students and staff from UDW. The issue of curricula to be followed was negotiated at school level by the merging units. After many meetings and long debates the School agreed to adopt the curricular of the School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering at the University of Natal and adapt some courses from the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Durban Westville. Three programmes, Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Electronic Engineering and the name of the School from the University of Natal were retained.

    The merger was easy for academic and support staff as staff members were simply transferred to the new location. It was, however, not so easy for the students, particularly those from UDW, who came from a more flexible system, with more teaching and less self-study to an unfamiliar environment which some found to also be unfriendly. In addition, these students had to be integrated into new curricular. The University of Natal students, on the other hand, apart from a sudden overcrowding, did not have these problems. The first year engineering curricular in the two institutions was almost identical and nobody was disadvantaged. However, second and third year UDW students had to be given credits and exemptions for equivalent courses done at UDW to determine what they must do in the University of KwaZulu-Natal curricular. The final year students, referred to as pipeline students, continued with their UDW curriculum and were given a period of two years to complete their programme. Any students who did not complete in this period had to convert to the UKZN programme and many students had to do extra courses.

    Four years after the merger the School has changed significantly; many staff member have left or retired and have been replaced by new staff, the student population has shrunk to around 650 and in July 2009 the School facilities will expand into the adjacent Chemistry building.

    The Electrical,

    Electronic and



    building in


Excerpts of this article were taken from the History of the Department of Electrical Engineering

    at the University of Natal by Prof A Broadhurst and investigations made on University of Durban Westville Calendars from 1961 to 1994. The rest is my own personal experience in the two institutions.

Prof Stanley H Mneney Pr.Eng., BSc(Hons)Eng., M.A.Sc. , Ph.D. SMSAIEE, MIEEE,

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