Issue: 9/01

It's August and the university is quiet. The undergraduate students have gone to summer jobs to repair the damage done to their bank balances or to broaden their horizons through travel. Our graduates have either done the same or are preparing for their first professional appointments. Masters course students are completing their individual dissertations in preparation for September assessment and course completions. However, the quiet is not one of inactivity; rather it is the quiet one notes when deciding if this slope with the strange black diamonds is really such a good idea. It is the quiet of "Do I really want to do this again?"

In an article last year, I presented a picture of the difficulties faced by the engineering professions in recruiting students for suitable courses and then getting them to work in our industry. I tried to place this in the context of the U.K., where both historical and current prejudices and perceptions frame the public's view of a career in construction. I highlighted the work being done by the Women into Science and Engineering program and other similar initiatives.

The situation has not changed, and government has now become involved with industry and the universities to solve the problem. Without seeming overly cynical, this may well be an example of the old "I-we-you" management dictum that goes, "I think we have a problem, so why don't you sort it out?" In typical British fashion, a meeting was called where representatives of industry, the universities and government presented their perception of the problem, followed by break out groups discussing the issues prior to a plenum session from which a strategy would arise phoenix-like from the gathered experts.

The Government View

Presented by a very senior civil servant, the government view was that a strong and healthy construction industry was essential to its plans to revitalize the infrastructure and was a bedrock requirement for the improvement promised in public services, from health to transport to education. It was also essential that the universities continued to provide courses that would attract highly qualified graduates who would become the leaders of this industry. We were assured that this was a national priority; however, there did not initially seem to be any funding to support solutions beyond what was already provided. So far, so good.

The Industry View

This view was presented by an industrialist with a long record of university interaction who emphasized the needs of industry and reiterated that the construction industry is a vibrant and exciting place to make a career. I think we would agree with that sentiment--the problem is how to convince those who as yet haven't experienced it, or perhaps more importantly, their parents. Courses would have to be exciting and relevant; any minor difficulties with the professional institutions would be cleared up later. As I described previously, to practice as an engineer or construction professional in the U.K., one should become a chartered member of one of the appropriate institutions, some having pedigrees stretching back several hundred years. These institutions require university courses to be vetted through a process of accreditation, and sorting innovative course structures out later is probably not an option. However, still so far, so good.

The University Perception

The problems really came to light when the university position was outlined by the principal of one of the English universities with a strong Built Environment portfolio of courses. Two points were made--first, that student recruitment has been falling in engineering and science courses for 10 years, not only in construction, and second, that universities are now businesses and could only offer courses for which there was either a student demand or government/industry subsidies that would support both staff and infrastructure. During the 17 years of Conservative government since 1979, university funding had decreased as government sought efficiency gains in the provision of higher education. The advent of a Labour government in 1997, partially on the slogan, "Education, education, education," has so far only brought relief to the schooling levels of the system.

So, there is a real problem: government and industry want new and interesting courses and enlightened graduates to man the industry that will provide the infrastructure on which improved public services can be built. There can only be two solutions: increased government funding with industry support for students who select this career path, and a construction industry image makeover, so that young people will see it as a positive career choice. This is essential if the industry is to recruit from the highly intelligent and motivated upper quartile of the student population.

The university presentation also highlighted criteria for discipline choices that were interesting and not entirely lighthearted. The eventual job should be intellectually stimulating, well paid and hold status within the graduates' peer group. More controversially, it should find an echo in some current TV documentary or soap opera.

That last criterion is not as bizarre as it sounds. Popular culture has always colored career choices. As I mentioned in a previous article, veterinary courses are the most difficult to gain access to in the U.K. due to a surplus of applicants. This implies, as I have said before, that our brightest 18-year-olds are being trained for a career looking after dogs and cats--well, perhaps not quite as extreme as that, but certainly one wonders at the national interest represented by those career decisions. This popularity has for some time been ascribed to the proliferation of vet programs on national TV that has made nationally recognized characters out of the participants.

Even more bizarre are reports of the increased popularity of pathology as a medical specialty, presumably based on TV series and fiction presenting this area of the medical world as exciting and stimulating. Presumably in order to benefit from such trends, one university has opened an engineering forensics course.

The outcome of our deliberations was that "something needs to be done" and that, following a write up of the discussions, there would be a further meeting. Clearly, this moves us forward but not by very much.

Course provision is decreasing, as universities are no longer able to subsidize poorly attended courses. Once gone, it is highly unlikely that such provision can be reopened. In the area of Building Services Engineering, roughly half the courses available across the U.K. in 1990 have folded. Replacing specialist courses with graduates from cognate disciplines such as mechanical or electrical engineering is not a solution, as it carries with it the implicit cessation of specialist research within the departments that previously offered these career options.

Government assistance and industry sponsorship of students may be one solution; however, this has to be backed up by a change in perception. Perhaps the view that a more positive TV image is required is correct--on reflection, it would appear that in the U.K., all fictional property developers are crooks, and no building project is ever reported as coming in on time or on budget.

An International Comparison

It would be reassuring to believe that this is, as the French would say, just another British malady. However, as part of an international team invited to appraise the provision of Built Environment courses in Switzerland earlier this year, I can report that the only thing missing from their excellent courses in Building Services and Energy Engineering was students. The problems addressed here were exactly the problems faced by the Swiss industry and university sector. The solution proposed by our Swiss colleagues on the assessment panels was directed governmental support to make the discipline more attractive to students. It would be interesting to discover if these problems are also prevalent in the U.S.

Finally, I am sure that readers will be as pleased as I was to see the re-emergence of Concorde after being grounded for a year after the Paris crash. Fitted with Kevlar fuel tank linings and armored protection for cable runs above the undercarriage bays, the aircraft is currently undertaking flight trials. Reports so far are positive, and it is hoped that services will resume in October. Obviously, after such a disaster, there can't be a happy outcome, but it will be good to see this affirmation of engineering excellence flying again.