Courses are increasingly tailored to fit different training needs, as Margo Cole discovers.
With the difficulty for engineers of funding - or finding the time - to undertake post-graduate courses, the latest trend among providers is to broaden access by offering subjects as modules or blocks that can be packaged up as short courses.
This is particularly so among universities that have, until now, offered full-time or part-time MScs as the only options for study.
Many of the individual modules may be of immense value, and packaging them to make them viable for non-MSc students to attend as part of their continuing professional development (CPD) is a welcome move.
The choice of subject areas available in this format varies widely, from Sheffield University's new earthquake and civil engineering dynamics MSc to geoenvironmental engineering at Cardiff.
Mervin Jones, who runs Imperial College London's professional development department says: 'There are several MScs in our civil engineering department that are operated in modular form, allowing people to do individual modules rather than the whole course.'
The modules are usually two to five days in length, and tap in to the university's existing expertise. However, great care is taken to ensure the presence of external attendees does not affect the learning experience of students on the full MSc course.
This more flexible approach to training enables the university to provide the most appropriate solution for anyone wishing to attend a course. As Jones says:
'If we have 30 people wanting to come on one of the modules, we would run it as a separate course.'
Leeds University's department of fuel and energy has approached the problem from the other direction, by allowing its popular range of specialist short courses to count towards an MSc, which can be studied on a full or part-time basis.
The majority of UK students go on to full-time masters degree courses immediately after graduating with their first degree.
Mature students tend to come from overseas.
At Cardiff University this is the case on the traditional civil engineering, structural engineering and water engineering MScs.
But its recently set up geoenvironmental engineering masters has EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) funding for scholarships, making it a more viable prospect for UK students.
The course runs as a one-year, full-time MSc or part time over three years, and is split half and half between students with some industrial experience (usually between one and two years) and those coming direct from first degree study. The course consists of taught modules during the autumn semester and intense CPD-style modules taught in two-day 'short bursts' in the spring term.
This is designed to enable sections of the course to be offered externally.
The course involves a range of geoenvironmental engineering subjects, including issues associated with contaminated land and geoenvironmental modelling. It is linked closely to work undertaken by the university's earth science and environmental science departments.
Cardiff anticipates accepting a maximum of 10 external attendees on each of the modules but, like Imperial, says it could repeat any of the modules as a stand-alone course if they proved particularly popular.
This 'opening up' of internal courses has also filtered down to graduate training level. Achieva - the training arm of consultant Joynes Pike Associates - is opening its graduate development programme to other firms.
Manager Dagmar Roberts was concerned that graduates working for smaller companies were missing out on training as their employers did not have the budget or time to put together a full development programme for just one or two graduates. This way, she says, they can join Joynes Pike's own graduates for a full programme of courses.
'What we've tried to do is provide a programme of public courses that are geared up to the Joynes Pike graduate development programme. Opening them up to external attendance means the numbers should be good enough to make them viable.'
She says the programme could form part of a training plan, with the content providing a mix of technical and management subjects. Topics on the programme are law and contracts, using the New Engineering Contract, ground investigation, time management, and health and safety in action.
Joynes Pike's graduates are expected to make up between one third and half of the numbers on each course.
For the larger, 'blue chip' companies it already works with, Achieva has launched two new packages of in-house courses at different levels. The 'six pack', aimed at graduates, consists of six courses based on the core objectives laid out by the ICE. These are communication skills; leadership and teamwork; health and safety legislation; project management;
financial awareness; and a three-day graduate management package that includes law and contracts and partnering.
'We're giving them the option of picking out individual courses or going for the whole package, ' explains Roberts. 'We're trying to get them to focus more on long-term training needs rather than just asking for one-off courses.'
A similar philosophy is behind the second new package, which is aimed at chartered engineers.
Content includes time management, client presentations, law, contracts and contract risk, project risk and risk management, using the New Engineering Contract and partnering, and negotiating skills.
'It's aimed at chartered engineers at that rung of their career where they're looking to develop themselves further, ' explains Roberts.
Many of the same topics are also proving popular for course provider Thomas Telford Training. Its general manager Mike Cookson says: 'There's been a surge in business across many of the course titles within our portfolio and especially in graduate training, health and safety, and contracts. Many companies have identified graduate training as a business critical investment that will help them to attract, develop and retain key staff in a highly competitive recruitment market.'
He says graduate training programmes are increasingly integrated, and provide recruits with a comprehensive range of technical, professional, commercial and personal skills aimed at preparing them both for their business careers and the ICE Professional Review.
Among more senior engineers, training in Eurocodes is proving particularly popular.
The company - together with the ICE - has developed the 'Eurocodes Expert' service to help clients, designers, contractors and suppliers understand and use the 10 new European structural design codes.
The increasing flexibility in training reflects a need to suit different learning styles. Late last year Thomas Telford Training launched a 'Virtual Learning Centre', in partnership with Echelon Learning, to offer more than 2,000 pieces of learning that are directly downloadable from a website.
These 'bite-sized' modules cost, typically, £5 to £10.
Later this month, the company will launch i-seminars - short interactive online seminars. Cookson explains:
'Through an easy to use interface, participants are able to both see and hear the speaker's presentation.
They are also able to speak to the presenter, hear other participants' contributions to the session and share applications.'
He says the technology is currently used by global organisations such as Microsoft, which estimates it has saved 94% of its classroom costs as a result.
With increasing pressures on time, web-based learning may well prove popular. But the key message for providers seems to be to offer as much flexibility as possible to help engineers gain access to learning.
INFOPLUS www. imperial. ac. uk/cpd/ courses_subject_civil_eng. htm www. cardiff. ac. uk www. achievatraining. com www. tttrain.co.uk