A two-year BEng sprint

July 7, 2000

The cream of Motorola's young engineers are taking an intensive degree, schooled by GCU lecturers, while at work. Olga Wojtas reports on the pioneering link-upthat is getting results

The Motorola plant in Bathgate, the largest digital mobile phone manufacturing site in the world, is a remarkably attractive addition to the West Lothian landscape. Set in 36 hectares, its dark glazed frontage overlooks manicured lawns and ponds containing koi carp, ducks and swans. Inside, it includes a shop, a subsidised restaurant, a gymnasium, aerobics room, child development centre and sports and social club. But there is now a radical addition to the on-site facilities, with a handpicked group of engineers studying for a degree with Glasgow Caledonian University.

The GCU initiative, praised by education secretary David Blunkett, means lecturers travelling to the site to teach the honours BEng degree. The first cohort of eight students, sitting finals, is already well beyond technician level, and entered the four-year course directly into its third year.

The company is underwriting the cost: the sum is confidential, but GCU's engineering department is obliged to charge no less than for a normal day-release course. Despite the convenience of on-site study, it has scarcely been an easy option. The engineers normally work from 8am until 4.30pm, but for three days a week the GCU degree course runs from 7am to 10am. Then the engineers have to make up the working hours they miss.

One of the group, Iain Roney, aged 34, says: "On two of the days, the university provides a lecture, and the third day is a project day. Once a month we go to the university for an afternoon, and then there's home study. I'm probably studying two hours each night and I catch up at weekends."

Mr Roney previously began an Open University course, but he prefers the option of a two-year sprint, particularly as the GCU degree has the added attraction of accreditation by the Institute of Electrical Engineers. "The OU was hard work, but if you had a busy period at work, you could miss two weeks and then cram. You can't let this slip at all. Nobody's taken holidays on this course."

Ross Cruickshank, also 34, admits having had a "real struggle" to catch up after a period of illness. "Two hours' study a night is the average, and on Saturday or Sunday it's about six hours. This last semester's been a lot more demanding. We've chosen to do something that's quite aggressive, and although we're suffering, we expected to some extent to feel some pain."

But he feels they are still in a happier position than full-time students, many of whom face considerable hardship. "We're fortunate enough to have a job, and a salary every month. Other students are actually qualifying just to get a start."

The pay-off is the prospect of senior engineer status. Ian Smith, Motorola's technical training and development manager, says: "They're not in this just for the fun of it. They're looking to progress. We picked the cream, and we're getting engineers who will get on to a much higher level."

Given the notorious skills shortage in engineering, Motorola sees value in developing its own talent rather than being dependent on poaching from other firms. In September, 12 more engineers will begin the degree course The BEng has not been specially tailored for Motorola: the students follow the same curriculum and sit the same exams as full-time students in Glasgow. But the Glasgow students spend more time in practical laboratory sessions and have one-to-one tutorials, which do not exist for the Motorola group.

"As a balance, there's a feeling of being a team and having colleagues you can bounce things off and give each other a bit of support. If you're stuck with something or need extra tuition, you can go to some of the managers or senior engineers," says Mr Smith.

Senior lecturer William McKee says the outreach into industry was motivated not by the need to change the degree, but by a noticeable drop in day-release students, whose companies were increasingly reluctant to give them leave. "Most of these students could simply not attend any other form of course. If there are problems on the production line, things would stop without them. By doing it this way, they're only unavailable for three hours at a time, and if there's a real disaster, someone can come and get them," he says.

"For non campus-based students, we had to rewrite the course to reduce contact time but increase student-centred work, and we have brought in computer-aided learning links, phone, fax, email and video-conferencing."

The Motorola students sit exams alongside the full-time students in Glasgow, and their results have been impressive.

"The third-year average mark of this group was the highest of the year, higher than day-release, which is always higher than full-time," says Mr McKee.

"Last year, three out of the eight got distinctions compared with six out of 58 in the whole year. Their experience is much higher, their body of knowledge is much higher, because they're working in the field. Their learning capability is much higher, their capture rates are faster, their learning curve is less steep, and they actually concentrate on things. Their time management is wonderful compared with full-time students."

The academics admit they that can be given a hard time by students who are not shy about challenging them and who are swift to point out where theory differs from industrial practice. All the same, they appreciate the chance to update their own expertise. One of the attractions for GCU, says Mr McKee, was that Motorola is not "just a screwdriver shop", but carries out design, research and development on site.

But there has also been pressure on the academic staff. Not only do they have to travel to Bathgate for the 7am start, but because the Motorola deal is a commercial contract, they then have to make up their normal hours at the university. "We're not allowed to be part-timers," says Mr McKee.

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