A new beginning for a strained relationship

January 23, 2003

Universities should work with business and industry to mould skilled graduates ready for work, says Sa’ad Medhat

This week’s white paper on the future of higher education tackles the failure of universities over the years to match graduate skills to the needs of industry.

Many organisations have established corporate universities to satisfy their training and education needs. The emergence of these universities begs the question: are conventional universities producing the right graduates for the job?

Employers increasingly demand graduates with practical skills and knowledge, as opposed to theoretical capability only. Universities must work with business and industry to create degrees that meet employer needs.

A large graduate population is essential to future development. But a system that produces graduates who lack employable talents will have a negative impact on the economy. To plug the skills gap, universities must focus on degrees that reduce the deficiencies faced by business and industry.

There is a chasm between what industry wants and what universities provide. Given the range and differing levels of quality of science, engineering and technology courses, what assurances can universities give industry that they are delivering graduates with the skills for business in the 21st century?

The Universe of Engineering report (2000) identified more than 1.4 million people in the science, engineering and technology sector who were not supported by any professional institution. The Department of Trade and Industry graduate-tracking survey last July showed that only 35 per cent of science, engineering and technology graduates belonged to a professional institution three years after completing their courses. There is a huge pool of graduate professionals who do not think that the professional qualifications available fulfil their needs.

Modernisation of the professional qualifications structure is a priority for the ETB, the successor body to the Engineering Council. The ETB has begun by evaluating the development of a newly proposed professional qualification: the chartered technologist.

When the standards and routes to registration for chartered engineer status were revised in 1997, business and industry perceived that standards had fallen due to the rapid increase in university student numbers, reduced funding and lower entry standards. As a result, the Engineering Council raised the academic standard of achievement for chartered engineers from a three-year BEng degree to a four-year MEng. This led to lower student numbers - the MEng was considered unattractive as it was a longer course and could lead to higher debt.

Current thinking is that professionals would be able to register for the new qualification only after graduating and then practising in their occupation for a set period. Professional registration would combine academic knowledge, experience and business skills, achieved through a series of continuous professional development courses accredited by licensed professional institutions.

Such a qualification could provide universities with a mechanism to calibrate their programmes and align themselves with the needs of business and industry. The market is constantly changing. Professionals need to ensure that their knowledge and skills are updated in line with developments, which is why they need to continue to qualify for their chartered status after the initial registration period has expired.

The qualification will provide professionals with a forum to exchange views and the chance to be part of a community that embraces emerging sciences and technologies. Being part of a new community helps to validate a person’s knowledge. It gives them purpose, direction and support. Silo-based cultures do not breed innovation. They create elitist perspectives that hinder creativity.

The ETB is about to evaluate professionals’ response to the proposed qualification. Initial findings are favourable. By encouraging people to cross discipline boundaries, the new qualification will nurture knowledge transfer. It will also offer opportunities to academia, business and professional institutions to inspire and innovate beyond the confines of current convention and generate a level of creativity and business responsiveness that could make UK plc number one on the world stage.

Sa’ad Medhat is director of education and professional development at the ETB.

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