A massive shake-up of engineering degrees looks likely as the 36 engineering institutions move to consolidate first into two bodies and, ultimately, into a single body.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the Institution of Incorporated Engineers - the three largest - are planning to form a multidisciplinary body by 2005. It would have more than 240,000 members representing more than 45 per cent of the sector.
The Institution of Civil Engineers has been discussing merger with 26 other engineering institutions in the construction and built and natural environment areas, with a view to creating a single institute representing up to 180,000 engineers by 2006.
As part of an ensuing shake-up, universities could be encouraged to scrap many specialist engineering programmes and replace them with simpler "foundation- type" degrees.
This could mean students would receive basic engineering training early in a degree and would specialise later on. The aim is to help them adopt a more interdisciplinary approach to their careers.
Douglas Oakervee, president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, said engineering undergraduates would emerge better prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.
Civil engineering has one of the strictest accreditation programmes, often requiring students to specialise from the start of their degrees to fit in all the requirements.
Delivering his first presidential address this week, Mr Oakervee said: "We are encouraging the Joint Board of Moderators to broaden its guidelines to academic institutions to allow a greater freedom in what should be taught.
"Again, we must not be prescriptive in these matters but provide realistic guidelines that can be achieved, and ensure the system produces well-rounded engineers competent in the basic sciences and skills required."
He said the government's expansion targets through foundation degrees should be exploited for engineering's benefit and that there needed to be better links between industry and lifelong learning programmes.
It looks likely that in three years there will be two major institutions representing the majority of engineers, with a few specialist bodies remaining and others aligning themselves with scientific bodies.
Eventually, these two could merge. The widespread use of information and communications technology in all fields of engineering has been credited with bringing the various disciplines together since they began to diverge almost 200 years ago.
Dorrie Giles, director of qualifications at the Institute of Electrical Engineers, said the merger was very likely despite the failure to merge the IEE and IMechE in the 1990s.
"It's a different world now. Engineering is truly interdisciplinary and global," she said.
She said a new image of engineering would encourage young people to take up the profession, and a single body would simplify accreditation processes.
Bob Ditchfield, director of educational affairs at the Royal Academy of Engineering, welcomed the proposed consolidation.
But the Privy Council and Charity Commission would have to give final approval for a merger.