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University challenge

Courses - The industry increasingly wants graduate civil engineering courses that can be delivered to the engineer at work - but can academia do it-Damian Arnold reports.

A growing number of graduate civil engineers will be studying for their MScs from the familiar surroundings of their desk at the office.

Academics have told NCE that work based learning is being demanded by an industry increasingly loath to see its staff absent, and wanting to be more involved in the actual teaching so that courses can be customised to their needs.

One such example is soon to be unveiled at Surrey University, a new transportation MSc devised in partnership with transportation consultants and local authorities. Almost half the course can be carried out as a placement in the workplace with the teaching coming from industry. University staff would keep a watching brief to ensure that academic standards are kept high.

'This is the way forward for postgraduate education, ' says Surrey's senior tutor for industrial liaison Dr Bob Griffiths.

'We are trying to set up a model through this initiative and develop other courses in future.' With fewer undergraduates able to stay on for a year at university beyond their BEng, work based learning is being embraced by the ICE which sees such courses as a key pathway for graduates to attain chartered status.

'This is an area that is ripe for development, ' says the ICE's director of membership David Lloyd-Roache. 'It is becoming more popular to try and integrate postgraduate training into people's jobs. Academia is developing closer contact with employers to develop work based masters courses because the universities recognise that it is getting harder for people to undertake a masters course.

'There is also a demand for specific knowledge from the employer's perspective that these courses can give.' Many universities are now working on a delivery mechanism to ensure that if the courses do migrate to the workplace, rigorous academic standards will be maintained.

Surrey University's Griffi ths says: 'It would be our role to quality manage the course, and because as we would be doing less teaching we would have the time to do it.' Dagmar oberts, anager of Nottingham-based training provider Achieva Training confirmed a big rise in demand for 'work based training' because employers wanted more control over what is taught.

'More of our clients are requesting tailored in-house courses, ' she says. 'An advantage of choosing in-house training is that the course content can be customised by the tutor to meet an organisation's specific training needs. This can include using a client's own case studies to ensure that the learning experience is focused and relevant. Also the client can decide the timing and venue of training, thus ensuring minimum disruption to work schedules.' Another commercial advantage to course providers is that work-based training converts easily to a distance learning format so new models have the potential to be exported all over the world.

And evidence shows there is plenty of demand out there.

Bath University, for example, is developing distance learning centres in Hong Kong and Canada for its construction management MSc to go with its recently established centre in South Africa.

And overseas students enrich the quality of MScs because they usually come with a few years experience of industry, says Griffi ths.

Surrey runs a distance learning course in structures and one on bridges.

The ICE's training arm - Thomas Telford Limited - has seen a big increase in e-learning courses whereby engineers overseas are assigned a tutor who mentors them through assignments via email. Its Virtual Learning Centre also covers over 2,500 construction-related topics.

'It's particularly useful for fixing a particular problem, ' said TTL general manager Mike Cookson: 'You just type in the subject you want and you can download the stuff instantly.' Among the most popular subjects in which graduates want to arm themselves with knowledge are environmental engineering and sustainability.

Dedicated masters courses in sustainability are available, such as at Cambridge (see box) or Salford University while other institutions go for the 'bolt on' approach, used for example by Imperial College which now has a major module in sustainable development running through many of its masters courses.

Also, as testified by a recent ICE survey that quizzed engineers about their training needs, softer skills such as management are still very popular, but this does not meet with universal approval from civil engineering academics.

Brunel University's Bridge Engineering Centre honorary professor Arvind Kumar says that many academics believe the vogue for teaching engineers 'soft skills' was to the detriment of 'first principles'.

'We need to get back to fi rst principles, ' he says.

'Understanding calculations for example is far more important than management skills.' With this view in mind, Brunel is hoping to develop graduate courses in bridge engineering to make the man who gave the university its name proud.

Planned initiatives will kick off with a major bridge engineering conference in July next year to celebrate the 200 anniversary of IKB's birth.

Valuable CPD points will be up for grabs at the event which will cover advances in bridge engineering, movement in bridges, maintenance and management. Internationally renowned bridge engineers are expected to attend.

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