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MASTER STROKES

MEETING REPORT

Report on joint meeting of the Midlands Geotechnical Society and the Institution of Civil Engineers 'Has the MEng degree reduced demand for the geotechnical engineering MSc and created skills shortages?' held at Birmingham University on 1 December 2003, by Christina Jackson.

So well does the four-year MEng degree prepare engineers for professional life that rather than pursuing engineering, many are recruited into management consulting and financial services.

So said Midlands Geotechnical Society chairman Christina Jackson, introducing the speakers at the MGS/ICE meeting in Birmingham. These included Newcastle University's Professor Barry Clarke, who is also ICE North chairman, Ground Forum chairman and member of the Joint Board of Moderators; ICE director of membership Jon Prichard; Len Threadgold, founder of Geotechnics; and the Engineering Council (UK) deputy director Richard Shearman.

While this success might be seen as a triumph for engineering, said Jackson, if MEng graduates were employable, there was no reason for them to study for a further MSc. In the past, she said, many of the brightest and best engineering graduates would take an engineering MSc within two or three years of graduation as part of their professional and technical development.

The situation for the MSc is not helped by a fall in the number of grants available and higher student debt. Very few UK students enrol for full-time courses - even when grants are available, she said.

An added problem is the MSc degree appears to have been marginalised by not being part of the accredited routes to chartered status.

But the falling number of MSc graduates is having an averse affect on recruitment, Jackson explained. MEng graduates do not have the same depth of technical skills as MSc graduates and employers had to look overseas for staff, recruiting those with an earth science background or top-up geotechnical skills of MEng graduates.

Opening the subject to the panel, Barry Clarke started by considering some facts, some fiction and then the future of the skills shortage in geotechnics (detailed in his article in GE February 04).

He disagreed that the decline in MScs is due to the MEng programmes. He believed it is because too few students are entering professional vocational programmes; there is a general shortage of graduates (BEng or MEng) which means graduates do not need to follow specialist programmes to be employable; and a lack of funding for specialist training.

Jon Prichard looked more closely at the numbers. Figures show while overall engineering graduate numbers are declining, the proportion and numbers of MEng graduates is increasing steadily year on year (Figure 1). This would suggest numbers of postgraduate students are declining, but figures for civil engineering students do not show this (Figure 2).

Full-time postgraduate numbers are steady, as are figures for part-time under- and postgraduates. Part-time study, already established for technician and incorporated engineers, is likely to increase as fees rise.

While there may not be a problem now, he warned, the demographics of the ageing engineering professional population will cause shortages. This is already happening in the US so recruitment of overseas engineers cannot be relied upon.

Government is funding training in teaching and nursing, where there are similar shortages, because it is the principal employer.While it is not the main direct employer of engineers, government is the major client.

But perhaps the problem is a geotechnical skills gap rather than a skills shortage, Prichard said, similar to other civil engineering sectors such as flood defence and transport planning.

Gaps can be bridged by working with industry, he added. The geotechnics skills shortage, if there is one, is not caused by MEng courses.

Threadgold agreed. There is an inadequate supply of graduates in civil engineering, engineering geology and geoenvironmental engineering, he said, due to their poor image in the eyes of the government, media, parents, teachers and pupils.

The common image of the engineer is someone who fixes televisions, washing machines, cars or computers; what sort of career is that for imaginative, dynamic, caring, academically able, fit, ambitious young people? he asked.

The image has been further tainted by the blame culture. Engineers are blamed for the breakdown of infrastructure, despite years of inadequate funding by government.

Engineers have high status and rewards in developing countries as they are perceived as being key to the survival and improvement of their society, Threadgold said.

In the UK, however, engineers are taken for granted, although recently there has been a reawakening in the media of the contribution of the engineer to society and its development in the 19th and 20th centuries. Initiatives are being taken in schools to show how science, mathematics, art and imagination are applied in engineering.

But graduate engineers need to be trained, developed and retained. Learning through work is invaluable and can be as good as, and often better than, attending courses carrying formal CPD accreditation. MSc courses are a particularly valuable resource for industry and should be rendered more accessible, particularly for those with some industrial experience.

Richard Shearman outlined the relevant provisions of the new UK SPEC (UK Standards of Professional Engineering Competence) from the Engineering Council (UK).

Registration as a professional engineer or technician is open to all who can demonstrate competence and commitment.This message was lost in Sartor 3 (Standards and routes to registration, 1997), which is regarded as prescriptive. It was initially uncertain whether MScs would be considered as a suitable top-up instead of taking the MEng, but after a few years this was generally recognised.

UK SPEC competency will need to be customised by each institution. Competencies are technical and non-technical. Opinions are often individual or anecdotal, but the conviction seems to be growing that non-technical competencies are as import as technical skills, although technical and commercial management and leadership must be underpinned by technical competencies.

MEng is now no longer the principal standard required for CEng - specialist MScs are now explicitly recognised as appropriate further learning. This means those with non-engineering first degrees should find it easier with opportunities for further learning.

Also non-accredited degrees do not now need Engineering Council Part 2 exams. Workbased learning can be pursued instead, providing more flexibility.

Engineering degree course accreditation used to require a percentage intake with a certain A level attainment. The emphasis is now on general and specific learning outcomes. General covers knowledge and understanding, intellectual abilities, practical skills and general transferable skills, while specific includes underpinning science, mathematics, engineering analysis, design, economic, social and environmental context, and engineering practice The MEng degree does not provide what is needed in all specialist areas. EC (UK) is keen to see more work-based masters programmes.

But he agreed with Threadgold that fundamentally engineering has to be seen as attractive. While the profession does have a poor image, the solution is in the hands of engineers.

An example of this failure was a letter in an institution magazine about why there are so few women in engineering. The letter said women are interested in people, men in things and engineering is about things. If the message is that engineering is not about people, then there is a problem.

Dr Gurmel Ghataora of Birmingham University, who is a senior lecturer in geotechnics and admissions director postgraduate (taught), said there is a relationship between numbers of UK MSc applicants and the UK economy.

In the late 1990s, UK students on the MSc accounted for half or more of the intake; now the number has reduced to only one or two.This appeared to be related to the introduction of tuition fees and the reduction of grants available.

Withdrawal of funding in recent years has had a dramatic effect. Many MSc courses are surviving only on the basis of attracting, maintaining or increasing the intake of overseas students, he said. If industry requires technical skills at MSc level, then it must act.

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