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'Historic' meeting boosts EngC's expansion plans

OPINION over the Engineering Council's controversial expansion plans appeared to be converging towards agreement this week, after the four largest institutions described 'the emerging thrust' as 'something we can align to.'

Representatives from all 34 professional institutions, along with senior figures from industry and education, met at the Institution of Electrical Engineers to debate the Hawley Group report.

This made 43 wide-ranging recommendations as to the council's future role (NCE 11 January).

The event, described as 'historic' by Dr Robert Hawley, chairman of both the Hawley Group and the Engineering Council, was used to launch the next stage of the implementation process. It will see working groups finalise the changes to be made in six key areas (see box).

This will culminate in the relaunch of the Engineering Council as the Engineering & Technology Board in October.

The plans were greeted with heavy scepticism from the 'big four' institutions - electrical, chemical, mechanical and civil - when announced in December, and prompted them to join forces to present a unified view.

Their concern was that the plans were being driven through without the involvement of the institutions.

Particular concern was expressed over the proposal that the council be more actively involved in continuing professional development (CPD).

The big four finally gave their blessing to the proposals after Dr Hawley and science minister Lord Sainsbury set out a definitive way forward.

'We are fully aware of the changes going on in the individual institutions, but we can be under no illusions, ' said Hawley.

'There is still a mountain to climb. We need radical change to the Engineering Council as well as in the Institutions.

'The report was essentially about the why and the what. We are now onto the how, ' he said.

Lord Sainsbury left the institutions under no illusions as to the importance of the working groups: 'The Government will provide moral and financial support, but there has to be a desire to co-operate and a willingness to change.

'Everyone must leave today with an understanding of the scale of what is to be done, ' he said.

Hawley then set out the tasks for the six working groups, starting with the most contentious.

The constitution and governance working group has the challenging tasks of developing a funding and business plan, and of knocking the current 57 man senate down to around a dozen.

Working group chairman and president of the British Computer Society Alastair Macdonald envisages the new body being governed by two or three representatives from industry, government, academia and the institutions.

This immediately suggests that at least two of the big four are likely to miss out on direct representation: 'With thirty plus institutions there isn't going to be room for everybody, ' he emphasised.

The big four are certain to want a major role in the CPD working group, where divided views pervade.

Since the release of the report in December, Hawley has moved to reassure the big four that responsibility for CPD would rest with the individual institutions in any new organisational structure, with the council's role likely to be that of encouraging take up, addressing the need for broader skills and assessing quality.

This move has disappointed others within the Engineering Council senate, who would like to see a more rigorous, regulated, CPD regime.

Such a move, they feel, would have the backing of clients who want reassurances that those carrying out work on their behalf are keeping abreast of the latest technologies.

This apparent weakening of the proposal is, they feel, a prime example of the power wielded by the big four in blocking major changes.

The input from young engineers will be vital in this, and other, working groups. Speaking after the meeting Hawley gave NCE a personal pledge that engineering graduates and students would be represented on each working group.

Perhaps the task ahead, and particularly the task facing civil engineers, was best illustrated by Bill Murray, representing the Institution of Healthcare Engineers.

'We need all our engineers, ' he said. 'From the high-tech biotechnology in our hospitals to the mundane engineering of building them.'

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