Industry on a learning curve

Some forward–thinking companies are linking up with universities to support students on specially–designed courses. And the trend looks likely to grow

Twenty years ago, most companies’ only link with universities was when they turned up for the annual recruitment campaign — known as the milk round — to promote themselves to final year students.

These days, things have changed. There are fewer engineering students for one thing, and companies can no longer rely on simply putting up a few corporate posters at these one-off events to attract graduates in the numbers they require.

Engineering employers are having to take a more strategic approach to woo graduates, for example by offering three-year sponsorship deals to 18-year-olds who might be worried about heavy student debts. And some are forming long-term partnerships with universities to design degrees tailored to the company’s needs.

The government is contributing progressively less to the cost of degree courses, and is unlikely to provide any funding in the future, says Professor John Midwinter, president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

This will inevitably lead to students paying higher fees. Midwinter says: ‘If fees are related to the cost of a particular course, then clearly engineering degrees are going to be very expensive. And given that young people aren’t flocking in droves to take them anyway, it doesn’t look like a recipe for a successful product.’

At the same time as undergraduate engineering degrees are becoming less popular and more expensive, companies are beginning to pour money into lifelong learning for their employees.

Initiatives such as the government-backed Learndirect scheme, part of the University for Industry, have been set up to give employees greater access to online training both at work and at home. This trend could eventually lead to shorter first degrees and much more in-company education schemes, says Midwinter, who is also professor of electrical engineering at University College London (UCL).

An alternative is to design a degree to be more relevant in the first place. In the US, car maker Ford has formed a strategic partnership with Detroit Mercy University, to offer a degree in manufacturing engineering at its plants in Dearborn. Employees taking part, both salaried and hourly-paid, have their fees repaid as part of the company’s tuition plan.

Companies in the UK are not far behind. BT has set up a masters degree in telecommunications engineering, managed by the electrical engineering department of UCL. The course is based on intensive one-week modules on BT premises, where all project work is also undertaken.

The university has also developed similar programmes with other telecommunications firms, such as Nortel Networks. ‘Companies are really starting to take this issue seriously. They are responding to a need and coming up with their own solutions,’ says Midwinter.

The long-term outlook for the supply of young engineers in the UK is not a strong one, says Bill Parsons, worldwide director of human resources at embedded chip designer ARM. ‘Fewer young people are taking A-level physics, fewer people are becoming science teachers — the whole scenario is fairly bleak.’

At the same time, university departments have not all caught up with industry changes, where the barrier between electronics and software engineering is becoming increasingly blurred. ‘This isn’t always reflected in the faculty splits in UK universities. You tend to have a computer department or an electronics department, whereas we’re aiming to combine the two,’ says Parsons.

ARM has recently teamed up with Loughborough University to produce a four-year MEng degree in electronics and software engineering. The course, which began last September, is taught by experts from both the university and the company, using specialist equipment and laboratories provided by ARM.

Up to 20 students on the course receive a £1,500 bursary to cover their fees, and are offered holiday work at the company’s Cambridge headquarters, or at any of its sites in the US, Europe and the Far East.

This holiday work, the idea of which might horrify many students looking forward to a three-month summer break, is an important part of the course. It allows the undergraduates a glimpse of life within the company, without adding an extra year to what is already a four-year course.

‘We’ve tried to keep it rigorous enough to meet the requirements of the Engineering Council and SARTOR, and allow for sufficient company contact that people come out familiar with our technology and culture, while not making it too long,’ Parsons says.In telecommunications, the speed of change makes it hard for universities to keep pace with the latest developments in technology and understanding. And tight departmental budgets make it almost impossible for students to apply the theory they learn using the most up to date, and often very expensive, equipment. As a result, students leaving UK universities are not ready to jump straight into jobs, says Paul Watts, education director at Marconi.

‘Students are not immediately employable, they’ve got to go through quite a lot of retraining on contemporary equipment,’ Watts says.

He believes there is need for a rethink of the way engineering students are educated. Young people on Marconi’s engineering degree course at Warwick University are full-time company employees, each earning around £9,500 a year. They spend most of their time within the company, and do all laboratory and project work using Marconi equipment.

Engineering firms will have to develop much closer links with universities if they want to find large numbers of high-calibre, employable graduates in the future, Watts says.

But this should not be seen as purely a financial burden. It can also bring benefits in terms of greater research opportunities. ‘Academic staff at the university can have access to the company to try out some of their experiments and ideas, so a fertile research environment can be developed, which you can then exploit together,’ he says.

BAE Systems is a relatively old hand at this type of partnership. Since 1996 the company has developed a range of strategic links with UK universities through its Virtual University. It believes future success will come from developing fewer but more closely targeted partnerships, rather than spreading cash throughout the university system, according to Alan Phillipson, head of The Virtual University’s faculty for engineering and manufacturing technology.

Phillipson says that investment can be targeted at regions where recruitment is likely to be most successful, and other opportunities can be developed. ‘What we are beginning to do is to try and put the education activities and research and technology work into the same universities, and to start looking at longer-term partnerships.’ As well as the economies of scale achieved by putting a number of eggs in one basket, contracting out research activity to a university is a sure way of sparking the institution’s interest in a more formal partnership, he says.

And if academics are involved in research designed to meet the company’s needs, it is also likely to have an impact on what the students are taught. ‘This even goes as far as the branding of prospectuses. If you look at university prospectuses now, they’re very up-front about which organisations they get support from,’ Phillipson says.

Winners take all

The one area of concern in this growing trend is that only companies as large as BAE Systems can afford to fund universities on such a scale. This raises concerns about a two-tier education system in which engineering departments that do not attract support will struggle. ‘I can see that if the UK academic network is not clear how it’s going to tackle this, we might get a situation like that in the US, where the success of a university department is centred on what industrial funding it can attract,’ says Phillipson.

Whatever the disadvantages, these partnerships are likely to begin popping up throughout the higher education system, as competition for high calibre graduates intensifies, and universities wise up to the extra funding and prestige they offer. And with precious little information available to help students judge which are the best engineering departments, many young people are likely to use company sponsorship as one way of measuring the quality of a course.

So expect to see more BAE Systems research laboratories and Marconi equipment within UK universities in the future.