It is encouraging that a profession that has made a vital contribution to Britain's prosperity during this century should be asking itself tough questions about its role and coming up with a sober strategy for achieving that role as the millenium approaches.
This week's proposals by the Engineering Council for a new system for the formation of engineers and their registration is part of an attempt to tackle two massive structural upheavals in recent decades that have left the profession badly exposed. The ferocity of the last two recessions, cutting through to the bone (and even to major amputation) of this country's manufacturing industries, badly dented the profession's confidence. Major changes in education coming at the same time compounded uncertainty, bringing questions of international comparability and confidence in our qualifications.
The council now proposes a tiered system with clear demarcations between three accredited engineering grades and is taking the opportunity to boost the performance requirements for each tier. The stress is to be on clearly defined standards of competence at each level and on commitment to contnued professional development. The council wants to see clear criteria established at each level and will accredit institutions to deliver on the basis of the institution's own quality assurance arrangements and its ability to demonstrate that, whatever approach it adopts to teaching and assessment, the outcome meets the competence requirements. In addition they want to see credit accumulation and transfer arrangements so that students can progress from one tier to another, moving institution if necessary.
The council's plans also require a substantial element of general education so that people holding their qualifications will be flexible enough to cope with changing opportunities and educated broadly enough to work in a wide range of occupations. If implemented, these proposals could do much to raise the status of engineering in this country as a general preparation for working life, as it is elsewhere in the world: producing a healthy counterweight to the large numbers of accountants and business school graduates populating the upper reaches of British management. The council's flexible framework, its encouragement of broader courses, and its willingness to leave the means of delivery to the institutions has the potential for developing a much improved relationship between institutions, industry and professional bodies.
There will, as the council recognises, need to be further work on the vexed question of entry standards for each level. The council proposes to stick to set entry standards for the time being although those proposed are more broadly defined than some critics -- like the Singapore government -- would like. These will, the council says, "need to be monitored until a valid means of assessing output standards is available". This will annoy some providers of engineering education but is probably wise if confidence in UK qualifications is to be maintained (let alone improved) while competence-based criteria are developed.
Considering the often acrimonious politics of the engineering profession and the vested interests of the accrediting institutions, the council has steered a skilful course between being over-prescriptive about how its bold new plans are to implemented and leaving little doubt as to what the goals should be.
Consideration of these proposals could with profit go beyond the engineering professions. Engineers, perhaps because of their intimate contact with manufacturing industry, seem to have taken on board and assimilated the best aspects of industrial approaches to quality improvement. These proposals from the council with their emphasis on clear competence-based standards for qualifications and their laissez-faire attitude to methods of delivery make a marked contrast to the market models and professional prescriptiveness which characterise much of the current training for professions allied to medicine (Synthesis, page v).
Moving training for these professions into higher education is clearly providing a welcome boost to staff and is stimulating new development in students' education which will better equip them for the rapid changes they will encounter in their working lives. But the short-term contract model being used for funding this work is likely to lead to discontinuity and inefficiency. Further, it will surely inhibit the necessary institutional investment of time and trouble in quality delivery which the Engineering Council's accreditation model should stimulate.
How the professional bodies should be integrated into quality assurance arrangments for higher education is a major and so far unresolved question. The Engineering Council's proposals could provide a model. The National Health Service's approach to securing supplies of trained staff from higher education does not.