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talkingpoint

Industry and academia must join forces to ensure civil engineering undergraduates get the training they need for professional life, says Nick Langdon.

As a director of a geotechnical and geoenvironmental consultancy looking to recruit graduates for a rapidly growing company I, like many Ground Engineering readers, have difficulties recruiting the right type of graduates in engineering and science.

We appreciate the need to pay market salaries and bonuses and to provide a flexible and happy working environment for the skilled people we wish to employ. It is not the package on offer that is the problem, but the dearth of graduates.

Between 1987 and 1998 I taught undergraduate civil engineers and engineering geologists at Portsmouth University. I am now a 'recovering academic'. My view is therefore one of erstwhile educator, practitioner and potential employer.

Over the past decade, I have seen what was good in higher education rapidly being destroyed. Vice chancellors perceive engineering courses as recruitment liabilities, fieldwork as jollies or as a health and safety risk to be avoided and specialist laboratories as underused teaching spaces. Statistics published by the Engineering Council last year indicate that numbers of engineering graduates have halved in ten years.

The fact that this is mirrored in civil engineering was apparent for those who cared to look even before the Engineering Council introduced Standards and Routes to Registration 3 (Sartor). The true effects of Sartor and the enormous decline in A-level maths and physics candidates will only truly be felt from about 2003 onwards.

Sartor 3 has been akin to the ancient practice of bleeding the patient to 'make them better'.

Delays and confusion over provision of matching sections for BEng graduates seeking chartered membership can only further damage retention of graduates in an industry which is still largely wedded to chartered membership as the natural professional development route for graduates. Very low numbers of graduates presenting for incorporated engineer membership - less than 10% last year - suggests the 'heart and minds' campaign to win over employers and graduates to the incorporated engineer membership is long overdue.

Given this situation, what might we expect from the graduate we employ? The effects of the research assessment exercises in universities has been to create paperwriting machines who occasionally lecture unwillingly and with little enthusiasm and who have no practical experience. Those who combined real engineering experience with an academic career have retired over the last ten years or, like me, returned to industry. Graduates will increasingly be unlikely to have heard an alternative to the textbook solution.

There is also a ridiculous drive to cram the latest cause célèbre into the overflowing pot that is the undergraduate civil engineering degree.

Just what do you leave out? To make room for sustainability do we lose surveying or materials? To meet the demands for specific health and safety taught modules, do we lose maths surgeries or bridge design? These are not easy choices to make, especially placed against a background of engineering courses being 'overtaught' compared with the vast majority of undergraduate courses that 18-year-olds can take.

Is it so revolutionary to suggest that undergraduate engineering education should be aimed at producing the future practitioner? Undergraduate teaching has to have the clear view that it needs to equip the generalist with basic understanding of civil engineering, maybe in simplistic terms, and not try to prepare the specialist or the next generation of researchers.

Perhaps then we might release useful amounts of teaching time to address the very real issues of health and safety and sustainability.

Industry has to support universities and be aware in much greater detail of what is going on and where the pressures lie.

Some of us in industry might be asked to lecture on short courses. This is a way in which undergraduate programmes can compensate for the lack of practical experience among academic staff and we should use the opportunity of greater contact wherever possible. Industry will also have to support MSc provision to a far greater degree than it has ever had to do in the past to get the skilled specialists it will need in the future.

In the construction industry we have work that can excite the young. But are we strong enough protagonists for it? Industry can and should do much more with universities to safeguard the only source of skilled people available to us.

Nick Langdon is a director of Card Geotechnics. He is an ICE reviewer and chairman of the ICE Southern Association.

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