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Students need help if they are to go into civil engineering

I spent a delightful couple of days last week hacking around golf courses in North Norfolk with a bunch of old university mates. It reminded me just how fortunate we are to be old.

Fortunate, because 25 years ago −when we were young − only around 5% of school leavers went to university. Subsistence grants were still available and even housing benefit could be claimed to offset the cost of living.

And of course all our tuition fees were covered by the state. While vacation work was needed to keep the bank manager happy and beer flowing from the pumps, none of us left university with the astronomical debts that have now become the norm.

So news that so many of the UK’s universities are planning to charge the maximum allowable £9,000 tuition fee next year is a blood curdling prospect.

“News that so many of the UK’s universities are planning to charge the maximum allowable £9,000 tuition fee next year is a blood curdling prospect”

While it does provide hard pressed universities with some guarantee that they will have the cash to maintain standards, it must also, for many, represent a game changer in terms of education and career aspiration.

It was a point made well by MEng civil engineering student Beth Shrubsall at this week’s London City University chancellor’s dinner and emphasised in her Viewpoint on page 11 of this magazine.

Having struggled hard over the last couple of years to make ends meet while studying, the reality, she fears, is that increased tuition fees will prevent many able students from achieving their potential.

Beth’s case is compelling. And for the civil engineering industry it is an issue that we really must wake up to.
Because for all the recent talk about the need for civil engineering to invest in young people throughout the recession, the glaring reality is that, as the market slowly starts to pick up, firms are soon going to be struggling to find the quality staff needed to drive growth.

“Civil engineering must be aware that the careers we offer do not always provide a compelling return on students’ investment”

The solution of course has to lie within. With public cash no longer available, the industry has no choice but to help.

The need to invest in young engineers and in particular apprentices, was rightly underlined by Crossrail programme director Andy Mitchell this week. The new Tunnelling Academy which opens in the summer is a massive move in the right direction.

Likewise the new Rail Academy which intends to be self funding by 2013 and to start delivering the skills the rail industry needs by 2015.

While the top universities will continue to deliver quality education to those that can pay, civil engineering must be aware that the careers we offer do not always provide a compelling return on students’ investment.

So if we are serious about being in shape to deliver the UK’s infrastructure for growth, the future must be based on school leaver apprenticeship, industry funded training, industrial placements, scholarships and bursaries.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (2)

  • "While the top universities will continue to deliver quality education to those that can pay, civil engineering must be aware that the careers we offer do not always provide a compelling return on students’ investment."

    I would say almost never. Even more so when you have a student debt of at least £36,000 when you graduate from your 4-year MEng course and end up in a £25k graduate engineer job in London. Your life is wrecked.

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  • The problem here is too many people are going to higher education to do non-vocational courses with litlle hope of meaningfull employment (media studies etc) and effectively waste 3 years! The system should perhaps give free/subsidised higher education for vocational courses that are in demand for our economy such as medicine, engineering, biotech etc. Charging for non in demand courses such as media studies and sociology will ensure only those with a real passion will pursue the career. Also make A levels harder, close poor performing uni's and make students win a place instead of rolling out of sixth form into one! Technically the grant system worked because of fewer students going to higher quality universities! Now with the decline of British industry the closure of factories, mines etc. there is no longer a job for life for those who previously would not have gone into higher education! So the current system engineered to reduce unemployment figures, and bring a larger service sector into the economy required more higher education! This leads into the other major problem now is qualification inflation, everyone has some bachelors degree so now to set yourself apart a masters is often needed! In my view a vocational subsidised system alongside a non-vocational fee system can work.

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