Off course – by a degree

What do overseas employers think of our engineering qualifications? In some countries, not much, which is another reason why the Engineering Council wanted a shake-up. Paul Carslake reports

It’s been no easy task, finding a way of weeding out university engineering courses which will not be part of the new path towards Chartered Engineer status. There have been years of earnest talks, heated debate, controversial drafts and conciliatory re-drafts involving the engineering institutions and the Engineering Council.

But the job had already been done, far away in South East Asia, and in a quite arbitrary manner. Professional institutions in Singapore already hold a comprehensive list of which British degree courses they think are up to scratch, and which are not.

Try to get accredited in Singapore as an engineer and you may find that a 2:1 degree at UMIST is acceptable, but from a former polytechnic you will need a first.

In Britain, such a view could be dismissed as prejudice or conjecture. But in Singapore – and in an increasing number of overseas markets – it’s official.

The Singapore list typifies some of the unease and suspicion felt abroad about the mixed-bag quality of engineering degrees currently offered in Britain. But the new Standards and Routes to Registration document (Sartor, published last week) has a mission to use accreditation rules to shake out some under-performing courses – a move that should help restore confidence in what the British degrees in engineering stand for abroad.

`Lists like that in Singapore exist in a growing number of countries, and it is a worrying trend,’ says Professor Jack Levy, Engineering Council acting director of registration, who has spearheaded the development of the revised Sartor. `We have to maintain the international currency of the British engineering degree in international markets.’

Attempts to find a kind of international equivalence between qualifications are growing. In 1988, the Eur Ing title was introduced by the Federation d’Associations Nationales d’Ingenieurs, which is the pan-European body that unites national engineering institutions across the EU. The Eur Ing tag is an attempt to bring a feeling of comparability to the various professional engineering qualifications that exist in Europe – potentially a useful guide to employers new to the overseas job market.

But the take-up of the Eur Ing reveals a far-from-even spread across the EU. Of the 20,000 Eur Ing qualifications bestowed so far (Chartered Engineers are eligible, and no exam is required) about half are British. Only two or three thousand are French or German.

`One reason for that is that we have been promoting it more here,’ explains Levy. But he admits that the cool reception given Eur Ing by continental Europeans could be a sign that the French or German engineers are happier with the clout carried by their existing national qualifications.

On the face of it, they could be justified in that. In Germany the exams are difficult to pass, and in France the courses are hard to get onto. And in both countries, engineers study longer for their Dip Ing certificates than British engineers do currently for the C Eng.

In Germany, it takes nine semesters -four and a half years at full pelt, though most students spin it out to up to seven years through re-sitting failed papers or taking time out to do paid jobs.

In France a succession of competitive exams creams off the top students into the best engineering schools in a highly selective process which can take five years. The best performers are rewarded with a qualification which by many is seen as a passport straight into the administrative and business elites.

But Sartor’s move to make the British degree four years long for prospective Chartered Engineers is part of what Levy regards as a slow European convergence of qualification standards. The result will be a two-tier British system of long-cycle courses (4-5 years) or short-cycle courses (3 years) that will mirror engineering courses in the rest of Europe.

This is even more evident with the introduction in some countries of new short-cycle degrees for engineers in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands: similar to the proposed new three-year course for Incorporated Engineer, or the French DUT – a highly-rated qualification for technicians, but which lacks the golden career path attributed to the Diplome d’Ingenieur.

But while course lengths converge, national differences remain in course content and the kind of skills with which students are equipped.

Alan Swanson, former head of Mechanical Engineering and currently deputy rector at Imperial College, London, has had first hand experience of the quality of overseas courses through the students they send to study in London.

`We’ve noticed major national differences. The French students here for example are streets ahead in maths, but not so good in design. While American students tend to want to stick to a textbook, because they have been taught in a more didactic fashion,’ he says.

But the relatively short length of the traditional three-year British degree has not been a problem with the UK’s engineering elite. Swanson can list former students who head engineering companies across the channel.