Martin Ince reports on the armed forces' drive to enlist more university services
A major institution of higher education that decided to abandon undergraduate teaching would normally expect a tirade from the National Union of Students, a petition from distressed staff and a series of crisis meetings with the funding council.
But they do things differently in the military. The Royal Military College of Science, at Shrivenham, near Swindon, will admit its last undergraduates next year. Its decision is a vote of confidence in the rest of the university system, where students will go in future. And it will be a substantial bonus for at least four universities that will gather in the Ministry of Defence students, for the most part in engineering and science.
The precedent for these changes is at Southampton University, where the Royal Navy started sending students in 1994 after ceasing its own engineering teaching. The students, mainly in nautical, aeronautical, electrical and mechanical engineering, are taught with the rest of the Southampton intake and need to get equivalent grades to join the course. But they are supported by a Navy unit - Thunderer Squadron - that handles the military side of their careers and is run by a naval commander, Paul Morris.
Commander Morris said: "Shrivenham produces good graduates but they cost far more than someone we put through university." In effect, the MoD was running a substantial undergraduate institution without funding-council money and in engineering and science, among the most expensive subjects to deliver.
More significantly, Commander Morris, said: "Future officers get better support at a civilian university and are exposed to the whole of society, which does not happen in a military environment."
The cooperation between Southampton and the Navy was examined during the Defence Training Review, which appeared in 2000, and was judged to be best practice for producing technical officers. As a result, Southampton will admit Royal Air Force students for the first time in 2003, with the Army to come, as well as students planning to be civilian engineers with the forces. Engineering accounts for most of the numbers, with sciences such as maths, physics and chemistry making up most of the rest.
However, the number of people involved - about 640 students a year - is so large that putting them all into Southampton would have overwhelmed its engineering departments and risked replicating the military monoculture of Shrivenham. Instead, there are to be four such collaborations around the UK.
The second is with Newcastle University, where a support unit is run by a lieutenant-colonel. Newcastle took its first students this term. Other engineering-intensive universities are now being visited as part of the process of selecting the final two.
Colonel Peter Sheridan, a Royal Engineer based at Shrivenham who is in charge of the outsourcing process, said that the forces had the same problem finding engineers and engineering students as the rest of society, and the situation was likely to get worse. This is one factor in his thinking about the next two universities in the diversification process. "To read engineering at Southampton you need three Bs (at A level)," Colonel Sheridan said. "There are people we might well regard as promising for careers with us who are not going to get those grades." So somewhere a little less demanding might be favoured.
Another possibility, Colonel Sheridan said, was to set up a single support unit in a multi-university city with responsibility for students at more than one institution. This could be tried in Newcastle, or somewhere else with an old and a new university. Commander Morris said that the system at Southampton worked partly because it is "transparent" to the university.
"I am a member of the engineering faculty board and spend most of my time doing what any other senior lecturer does, not being commander of a Royal Navy squadron," he said.
He said the students added their own form of diversity to the department. "They are good for the age mix: one is arriving at the age of 33. They also have more self-management skills than the average student. They are rather better at showing up than some of their colleagues. They will arrive in the morning despite having a hangover that would keep most students in bed."
They also do different things in their termly breaks than their colleagues. Four spent last summer on a US aircraft carrier, and some have been to points from Cyprus to the Falklands. Others work in UK dockyards and shore bases, in companies supplying equipment, or in other activities such as charity work involving management skills.
Colonel Keith Price, based at Shrivenham, said that one factor that could attract people to military engineering was its importance in the peacekeeping missions in which the forces have been engaged in recent years.
Regiments that have put an emphasis on combat have historically had more prestige than those in engineering, signals and construction. But Colonel Price said: "In some of these campaigns, very few shots have been fired but people have been building plenty of bridges. Young officers can analyse for themselves just which roles are interesting, and they have a strong sense of where the most exciting opportunities are."
Price added that the Defence Training Review, whose enthusiasm for the Navy's work at Southampton was decisive in the model being generalised across the forces, found in favour of the Army at a lower level.
The Army has long offered study at its own Welbeck College as one route for future officers. Its success is now being broadened by the construction of a tri-service Defence Sixth-Form College, which will be built near Loughborough on a large private-finance-initiative contract.
Welbeck alumni, having been immersed in Army culture from an early age, tend to stay longer in the Army than average. The new college will feed the university collaborations but will be only one of the entry routes, alongside mainstream schools and selection from within existing members of the forces.
The Army is also leading a rethink of how people progress through officer careers, which has involved the worlds of distance learning and course modularisation comparable with the experience of many universities and employers.
Simon Wragg, who despite being an RAF wing commander is on the team bringing in the changes, said that part of the purpose was to prevent officers who have been in the Army for ten years and are gearing up for promotion to major from disappearing for two years of college.
At present, majors are selected for command training and take a masters degree over two years. Only a quarter of the possible entrants are selected. Under the new system, all junior majors will take a 28-week residential course and have the opportunity to take a masters degree related to their specialism. In future, an initial course followed by shorter specialist modules, some delivered at a distance, will be preferred.
It is even possible that the existing MDA (master of defence administration) degree will be rebranded as a defence MBA, which would have the advantage of making officers more attractive to civilian employers once they leave the army.
Oddly, this is a positive factor for the retention of officers. Wing Commander Wragg said that many officers were happier to stay in the forces if they felt that they could find employment outside comparatively easily.
These and other changes to the way the forces work mean that Shrivenham is not going to be empty when it ceases to have undergraduates. Instead, it is the centre of the new Defence Academy, formed on April 1, which involves the Royal Military College of Science and six other components (the Royal Military College of Science, the Royal College of Defence Studies, the Joint Services Command and Staff College, the Defence Leadership Centre, the Defence School of Finance and Management, the Acquisition Training Cell, and the Conflict Studies Research Centre). All will move to Shrivenham at some point, except the Royal College of Defence Studies, which is based in central London to allow it to tap into circles of politicians and diplomats who become dizzy at the suggestion of a day out of the capital.
Colonel Price points out that under public procurement rules, the contract under which Cranfield University supplies the academic side of Shrivenham's work expires in 2006 and will be up for tender soon.
"The new shape of what we do here may involve a new contractor," he said, "although our emphasis on management and engineering does play to Cranfield's strengths. It is a customer-supplier relationship as well as an academic partnership. It will be competed for like all defence contracts."
A new contractor would certainly have a lot to learn. The masters and diploma courses available include some familiar offerings such as scientific computation or design of information systems, which coexist with weapons effects on structures and gun systems design.
Colonel Price said that the formation of the Defence Academy involved "restructuring what we do while continuing to run our existing courses".
One of its sub-units, the Joint Services Command and Staff College, based in another new private-finance-initiative building at Shrivenham, has King's College London as its academic provider (via a contract with Serco, the private finance initiative prime contractor) and officer students can take the King's war-studies course.
A large amount of research goes on at Shrivenham, mainly carried out by Cranfield under industrial contracts, which the military likes because it feeds into teaching and scholarship. In time, the removal of undergraduate teaching from Shrivenham could turn it into something like a military graduate school. Doctoral students and the masters groups will continue to be based there, and the Defence Academy wants to perform more consultancy and research in future.