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University challenge

With student numbers falling and graduates short on basic numeracy and literacy, the civils skills crisis is a problem for universities as much as industry, discovers Andrew Mylius.

'It's not so much that students are less able now than they were 10 years ago, it's more that their attitudes have changed, ' notes a senior tutor at Imperial College, London. 'They are coming on to courses asking, not 'what can I learn?' but 'what's the minimum I can get away with?'' There are still many students who perform well, achieve excellent exam results and continue to distinguish themselves in research, academia or industry, he emphasises. But overall, ascendancy of the 'scrape-by' approach to study is taking its toll: staff are having to work harder, nurturing students through their four years of study, to prevent Imperial's academic standards slipping.

The trend noted by the tutor at Imperial College is vastly magnified nationally. Almost 70% of UK civil engineering departments questioned by NCE say they have severe to critical problems recruiting students to their courses in the first place. All but 14% report that it has become more difficult to attract students in the last five years, and three quarters have seen student numbers fall.

Meanwhile, 36% of departments say students joining their courses are academically good and 18% report they are excellent. But a significant 36% say new recruits have only moderate abilities and 9% describe their applicants as academically poor.

The findings underpin feedback from consultants, contractors and clients (NCE 17 January, 21 February and 11 April) that showed industry struggling to find graduates with appropriate levels of ability. New recruits are short on mathematical and communication skills, have a weak grasp of civil and structural engineering and a poor understanding of the industry, they complained.

Information from universities shows that many young engineers' shortcomings originate from well before they start in higher education: a staggering 96% of civils departments say students' grasp of maths is inadequate, with 55% putting their first years through intensive remedial maths coaching.

More than half of universities say students struggle to get a proper grip on structural engineering, 41% say literacy is well below standard and 9% say students suffer from communication problems. A tenth claim their students are failing to develop any real appreciation of the topic.

Universities are making good the situation with a host of initiatives but, other than throwing more teaching hours at the problem, there is no unified approach. Some have enhanced their programme of site visits in a bid to demonstrate how work in the classroom relates to construction. Others operate industrial placement or scholarship schemes. Potential employers are invited to set out the attractions of a career in civil engineering, and visiting lecturers describe the intricacies and challenges of current projects.

One course has started diagnostic testing so that it can tailor remedies to individual needs, another has lowered its entry standards, while a third has introduced a post A-level, pre-degree foundation course to bring students up to speed for a BEng.

Even so, for every 20 students starting a degree in civil engineering, three are failing to complete the course. Half drop out because they cannot cope with the workload or subject matter.

Preference for another course or financial pressures account for the remainder.

The statistics are broadly in line with those for humanities or the arts. But course leaders say the drop out rate would be far higher if universities were not under so much political and financial pressure to maintain high student numbers.

Funding for civil engineering degrees has been falling in recent years: 59% of departments say they are working harder for less cash than five years ago, with only 9% reporting a budget increase. Cuts have resulted in loss of staff hours in two thirds of departments - student to staff ratios average 15:1 and have increased by over 150% in the last five years. A third of departments have been forced to axe at least some of their research activities and a tenth are spending more time chasing research funds.

Respondents are, in the main, pessimistic about the long term future of their departments:

'Bleak to very bleak, ' writes one head. 'We are struggling to maintain our staffing levels, quality and reputation, ' says another.

'All aspects of running and teaching the course are under pressure, ' states a third. Others report courses are being phased out. Only 28% of respondents could claim their civils courses are viable going concerns.

Departments are rapidly moving to offer MEng alongside BEng degrees in a bid to secure their survival. While 80% still run BEng courses, the number is declining - 18% have phased them out and more will be run down over the next year or two.

Others report that they have dropped BEng in favour of BSc courses, with the aim of satisfying ICE membership criteria for incorporated engineers. However, 'most of industry has no idea what an IEng course is about', notes one course leader, and take up is disappointing.

Sandwich courses are also losing their appeal - a quarter of students undertake them and numbers are dwindling.

Universities are apparently working hard to deliver graduates with knowledge and skills that are relevant to professional life. In 40% of universities, course structure and content is guided by an industrial advisory or liaison committee. All draw teaching staff from industry. Three quarters carry out research with industry backing and a third are sponsored by industry.

All respondents reported close links with consultants and 95% with contractors. Two fifths of courses have ties with local authorities and a quarter with construction clients. Yet they are still failing to satisfy consultant, contractor and client demands for numerate, articulate and appropriately skilled graduate engineers.

The civil engineering profession's recruitment problems are a well rehearsed lament, underlined by university feedback.

Civil engineering is failing to attract women at a grassroots level - just 15% of students on UK civils courses are female. A quarter of respondents say the figure is below 10%.

Of those students seeing their civils degree through to the end, 27% never join the industry. One institution reports that just 15% of its civils graduates go on to work as engineers. Often the most able people look for alternatives and, though departments do not keep close tabs on their graduates' activities, they estimate that 59% go on to work in the financial sector and 36% in information technology.

Debates on skills crisis

11 June, 11am: 'Civil engineering is of no interest to young people.'

For: Young Engineers' Club director David Rowley and Andrew Richards of engineering charity Bridging the Gap.

Against: Saffron Beetham, winner of the Henry Palmer Award 2001, and Symonds director Jonathan Goring.

Chair: Costain chief executive Stuart Doughty.

12 June, 11am: 'Paying civil engineers more is the only answer to the skills shortage.'

For: Dean & Dyball chairman Martin Hurst and Roger McLaughlin of the Association of Consulting Engineers.

Against: Scott Wilson Railways director Hugh Blackwood and Halliburton KBR head of engineering Dick Harris.

Chair: NCE editor Antony Oliver.

13 June, 11am: 'The construction industry does not take training and development seriously.'

For: ICE vice president Colin Clinton and founder of contractor Bullivant, Roger Bullivant.

Against: Nuttall recruitment and development manager Bob Devonshire and managing director of Carillion Infrastructure Services Rowan Sharples.

Chair: CITB chief executive Peter Lobham.

If you would like to attend any of the debates, please call Jackie Whitelaw on (020) 7505 6670 or e-mail jackie. whitelaw@construct.emap. com

INFOPLUS Civils 2002 will take place at the NEC, Birmingham, from 11-13 June. For more information and to pre-register, visit www. To book a stand Pre-register today For more information about Civils and to pre-register, visit www. Call Sally Devine on (020) 7505 6644 or email sally. devine@construct. emap. com or Russell Kenrick on (020) 7505 6882 fax (020) 7505 6699 or email russell. kenrick@construct. emap. com

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