Immovable barriers

May 6, 2010

J.D. Turner argues persuasively in favour of engineering as a career option ("Putting the world back in working order", 29 April), and makes some telling observations about the way the subject is taught in UK universities, not least of which is his criticism of early specialisation in most UK engineering degrees.

From 1996 to 2008, I was executive director of the Occupational Standards Council for Engineering (OSCEng), which was established to develop and promote the use of generic - that is, non-discipline-specific - competence standards for engineering.

Despite continuing changes in government policy with regard to the skills agenda, OSCEng achieved its principal goal with the publication of a single integrated suite of "engineering competence reference standards" in 2006. These standards, which covered ethical as well as technical aspects, were designed for use in different sectors, primarily for the design of engineering vocational qualifications at all levels, and applications such as skills audits and recruitment. They were emphatically not discipline-specific.

What happened after 2006? Not much. With a few honourable exceptions, the Sector Skills Councils - the government-funded organisations responsible for developing vocational awards - chose not to use the OSCEng standards. The relevant government departments and quangos - take a bow, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills - chose to ignore OSCEng and its unique role in bringing together the key players in engineering.

Support for OSCEng dwindled as the Sector Skills Councils followed their own interests and guarded their own fiefdoms, seemingly ignoring the demands from employers for Turner's "well-rounded individuals" who had not been subjected to the early specialisation he rightly criticises. Funding for OSCEng evaporated and it was wound up last year.

Yes, as Turner states, we need to take a hard look at the engineering curriculum. We tried to do that, but entrenched attitudes and self-interest - and the government's continuing uncertainty about how to deal with the skills agenda - proved difficult barriers to break down. I hope that Turner's call to action is heeded: alas, I fear it will be otherwise.

Tim Feest, Farnborough, Hampshire.

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