Blueprint for change

May 11, 2007

Engineering has long valued work-based learning, but it wants to step up a gear, explains Carol Arlett

The Engineering Subject Centre, part of the Higher Education Academy's Subject Centre Network, has a unique role in UK higher education. Through links forged over the past seven years with professional bodies and other organisations with an interest in engineering education, we have become a broker for communication between academics and the wider engineering community. This enables us to carry out our key role, which is to develop good practice and innovation in learning and teaching across the UK engineering community.

To do this, we need to regularly identify and respond to what our community tells us it needs. Discussions with sector skills councils, professional bodies, Foundation Degree Forward and engineering academics have identified work-based learning as a key issue.

Engineering traditionally has a good track record in work-based learning. Apprenticeships are a well-recognised route to professional qualifications. In higher education, many courses have provided opportunities for work placements. Masters courses have been developed to meet the needs of industry. Many are delivered flexibly and part time. Employers often sponsor students, and professional bodies provide accreditation.

But despite the existence of these options, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that undergraduate student numbers in engineering and technology have been static over the past five years.

Engineering has not shared in the growth of UK higher education. If the targets for numbers with higher-level qualifications suggested by the Leitch review of skills in the UK are to be met, many engineering departments will need to deliver teaching to non-traditional students.

Universities are considering the possibility that a proportion of funding could be delivered through a demand-led mechanism under which employers would have some influence on the content of courses. This means that it is important for engineering departments to continue to develop relationships with employers and to develop flexible modes of delivery, such as work-based learning. As brokers, we can play a key part in developing these links and in supporting work-based learning.

These developments raise concerns about the professional development needs of engineering academics themselves. One of the key aims of the Engineering Subject Centre is to provide discipline-based opportunities for professional development of higher education staff. This is achieved through a programme of workshops, as well as by providing resources and information on our website. The centre is considering how it can contribute to raising levels of staff development to support and deliver work-based learning in engineering and to assess its quality.

The Higher Education Academy has funded projects in six subject centres to develop discipline-specific practice for work-based learning. The Engineering Subject Centre's project "Engage" will facilitate dialogue between employers and academics in higher education and will develop a common understanding of the skills agenda for engineering, physical sciences and materials disciplines.

The project partners include three sector skills councils set up to enhance skills in business - Semta, for science, engineering and manufacturing; Cogent, for the chemical industry; and Energy and Utility Skills - plus the Engineering Council, the Engineering Professors' Council, the New Engineering Foundation, the Engineering Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and employers. The four themes identified by the partners are work-based learning, levers and enablers (including funding and accreditation), staff development and management of change, and building partnerships. The project will help to build a common understanding of work-based learning and work towards breaking down the language barriers between employers and higher education.

Research by the New Engineering Foundation on the progress of work-based learning in higher education engineering programmes highlights the need for engineering departments to enhance their ability and capacity to deliver innovative work-based learning solutions. The Engineering Subject Centre is uniquely placed to play a key role in this work.

Carol Arlett is centre manager, Higher Education Academy Engineering Subject Centre.


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