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Building on solid foundations

An educated, committed workforce is what every employer wants. Foundation degrees are delivering the goods.

In just a few weeks time Jason Beale will leave Kingston University, one of the first two students to complete Kingston's foundation degree in construction engineering. But there is no long post-graduation holiday booked and no ambitious travel plans.

Instead Beale will be reporting to site for Edmund Nuttall, the firm that sponsored him through the two-year course.

Foundation degrees are a relatively new development. The first courses began in September 2001 and aim to cope with skills shortages at the higher technician and associate level.

They are available in a number of disciplines and mix classroom modules with practical experience.

They are open to everyone able to benefit from higher education including those qualified to level 3, be it A levels, Advanced Modern Apprenticeship or vocational qualifications.

When the time came for Beale to decide between university and the job market he admits, 'I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to do'. Rather than opting for a degree course that might or might not provide the first step to a career, he went out and found a job.

A year working for Poole Harbour Authority, Dorset, was enough to convince him that he wanted a career in civil engineering. He also realised that if he wanted to progress he needed qualifications and set about finding how best to obtain them.

Nuttall formed part of the working group at Kingston University which set up the construction engineering foundation degree and is still involved. 'We see it as the start of professional development, ' says deputy director of human resources Pat Swift.

Having been accepted by both university and contractor, Beale became a Nuttall employee. His tuition fees were paid, he was given an allowance for accommodation and he was paid for his time on site.

Level one begins with a semester in the university covering construction basics and then eight months on site.

The second year has two classroom based modules with, again, the rest of the time on site.

It is a mix that seems to work well. The students 'have the opportunity to make sense of their classroom experience earlier and this reinforces the learning', says Kingston's graduate apprentice project manager Steve Houchin. Beale concurs: 'What I've learned in the classroom I use on site.'

Students who complete the work-based modules satisfactorily obtain NVQ Level 3 and for those who complete the entire course, there is the opportunity to top up to an honours degree. This is Beale's ambition but, he says, he would like to spend at least a year on site first and it will naturally depend on Nuttall's co-operation. But as Swift remarks, 'we like to take engineers through as far as they can go'.

A second group is following the course at Kingston with students sponsored by Amec, Bovis Lendlease and Ringway, plus of course, Nuttall. There are also some students who have applied directly via university admissions body UCAS, Houchin explains - they have been placed with Kingston Borough Council.

A number of universities are running civil engineering related foundation degree courses and more are being developed. One such is being set up by the Environment Agency, which needs to recruit engineers with flood risk and flood defence management skills. This is planned to start in October this year at the University of the West of England in Bristol.

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