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Master of your destiny

With degrees costing £10,000 a year, is it worth investing in an MEng? Ruby Kitching investigates.

Ten years ago, life seemed so much simpler. University tuition fees and maintenance grants were paid by the state, a three year BEng honours degree would be the first step towards becoming chartered and there was none of this 'matching sections' malarkey.

But times have changed.

In 1998 university maintenance grants were abolished and students embarking on degrees are now paying up to £1,150 in tuition fees every year.

The following year, in 1999, the benchmark academic qualification for becoming chartered changed from a three year BEng honours degree to a four year MEng degree (see box).

Most graduates now entering the workplace are divided between those with an MEng degree on the fast track to becoming chartered, or a BEng degree which needs to be topped up with an MSc or 1,000 hours of further learning, sometimes called 'matching sections'.

The National Union of Students (NUS) estimates that a university student outside London will spend £8,584 on tuition fees and living costs each academic year. In London students shell out £10,186. Add to this £3,000 in top-up fees being introduced in 2006, and the decision to study an extra year beyond a BEng degree becomes tougher.

'The government's current and proposed funding policies are forcing students to make decisions based on financial considerations, rather than choosing the right course which best suits them and their long term career goals, ' says NUS education vice president Hannah Essex.

Students are now weighing up whether to complete a three year degree course and start work immediately on graduating to pay off student debt, or to invest another £10,000 in the hope that an MEng degree will help them get ahead faster.

The view from the Engineering & Technology Board (ETB) is clear.

'If you're serious about a career - not a just a job - over the next 30 or 40 years then this [studying for an MEng degree] is the route you want to go down, ' advises education and policy director Anil Kumar.

But advice from industry is less clear cut.

Consultants generally endorse the gold standard of the MEng degree while contractors believe that academic qualifications are needed at all levels.

Most consultants interviewed by NCE felt that - to maintain their reputation for offering the best advice available - having staff with an MEng degree and becoming chartered was important.

'People are paying for advice in consulting, so if it's not of the best quality then it will be harder to sell, ' says Derek Wall, engineering director at White Young Green's Leeds office.

He adds that with more and more school leavers going on to higher education, 'not all will be able to make it into consultancy', and an MEng degree could be the key indicator for the ones that will.

Wall's view is echoed by most academics, including Imperial College head of civil engineering Professor David Nethercot, who believes that anyone considering a long-term career in civil engineering should aim to graduate from university with an MEng degree.

'When you're working for 40 years, a university degree is just part of the process. If you're interested in the long term, then you must be committed to engineering from the start.'

Nethercot adds that students starting university today 'are under-prepared in areas such as maths' and need an extra year at university to enter the industry with the same knowledge as students 20 years ago.

But contractors are less hung up on the number of years spent studying at university.

'If people are concerned about the financial issues of the MEng, they can be assured that the opportunities are there for people with BEng degrees, ' says the group training manager of a major civil engineering contracting firm. 'An extra year in education may be of benefit to the maturity of a person, but it's of no real benefit to a company.'

Nuttall graduate training manager Steve Hyde agrees:

'It doesn't matter what engineering degree you have. We're looking for character, motivation and work ethic.' Chartered, incorporated or technician engineers are all employable, he says.

But Hyde notes that more and more clients are requesting that chartered engineers make up the core of project teams.

Nuttall is therefore one of the few civil engineering contractors offering graduates further learning to top up BEng degrees to meet the benchmark requirements for becoming chartered.

Despite their different views on the value of academic qualifications, consultants and contractors agree on the value of industrial experience.

'There will always be a tendency to go for the most academically gifted graduate.

But if it's at the expense of work experience, you'd give the money to the one with a BEng degree and two years in industry - they'll be able to do the job with less supervision, ' says Wall.

Leaving university with only a BEng can make it difficult to attain chartered status, however.

Many post-1999 graduates are heading towards incorporated status. To get around this situation, ICE Chilterns regional liaison officer Chris Rickards advises undergraduates to do a BEng honours degree in civil engineering with further learning.

They should then study for an MSc later to gain the benchmark education for professional qualification and becoming chartered.

'This way you can specialise in, say, structures once you feel happy and you like that particular field of work, ' he said in ICE Chilterns' newsletter last June.

Some engineers in specialist fields such as geotechnics like Rickards' approach. However, some broader based consultancies feel uncomfortable.

'I don't think we'd be keen if a BEng honours graduate started with us and wanted to take a year out to do a masters when other routes are available to do it [such as further learning] on the job, ' says Wall.

One thing is sure, the rocketing cost of university study will force students to think harder about their career prospects in future.

'People used to spend more time choosing a CD than what degree to do - that will all change now, ' says ETB's Kumar.

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