Auf wiedersehen cowboy building

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Critics who consider the Dome a waste of space and the swinging Millennium Bridge a bit of a disaster, should take a closer look at some of the country's more positive constructions, such as the London Eye, the Tate Modern, Birmingham's concert hall and reconstructed city centre, Liverpool's delightful docklands and Manchester's Lowry arts complex.

Critics who consider the Dome a waste of space and the swinging Millennium Bridge a bit of a disaster, should take a closer look at some of the country's more positive constructions, such as the London Eye, the Tate Modern, Birmingham's concert hall and reconstructed city centre, Liverpool's delightful docklands and Manchester's Lowry arts complex.

And those who are rightly upset at Britain's Auf Wiedersehen, Pet approach to building, will not be surprised to learn that, over the past five years, applications to universities to study construction have slumped by 40 per cent - and this despite the country's veritable building boom. One need only count the number of giant cranes on our city skylines to see that building is not in the doldrums. Indeed, the construction industry is one of the UK's largest and represents some 12 per cent of our gross domestic product.

Stephen Mortimer, pro vice-chancellor of the University of Luton, a chartered builder, is as disturbed by the trend as are the leaders of the Construction Confederation, the Chartered Institute of Building and the Construction Industry Council.

"Vice-chancellors have been asked by the industry to reconsider their position in terms of marketing and promoting construction degrees. We have to ask ourselves: where is the talent?" said Mr Mortimer.

Any ambitious young man or woman with six, or more, points in their A-levels, who is keen to change the poor image of construction in Britain and pass a degree in construction or its allied subjects (building, construction engineering, civil engineering and management and the like), stands an excellent chance of being snapped up for a highly paid job in the industry.

Luton University's own construction degrees have been awarded 22 out of 24 points by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the Government's watchdog over higher education standards. It was also given £250,000 by the Higher Education Funding Council in England to "spread good practice in construction education". According to Stephen Mortimer, industrial sponsorship of promising students has increased and 97 per cent of Luton graduates walk straight into employment.

Luton is not alone in securing Government funding to support the industry. The University of the West of England, with a QAA score of 21 for the subject, has obtained £138,000 from the Department for Education and Employment's Higher Education Innovations Fund to develop learning packages for the internet.

At Leeds Metropolitan University (21 QAA points) a BSc Honours course in project management (construction) has been specifically tailored for school leavers armed either with A-levels or a BTEC national diploma/GNVQ Advanced. Students are introduced to the construction industry before advancing to project management. Other options within the school of the built environment range from civil engineering to quantity surveying.

Two years ago, the University of Derby launched an MBA in construction management aimed at senior managers. Derby's numerous other construction courses include a new two-year full-time HND in construction, a handy stepping stone to the three-year full-time or four-year sandwich BSc Honours degree in construction management. Norton Farrow of the university's Built Environment School, tells me all graduates from this programme landed appointments within their chosen field at salaries around £20,000.

At the University of Paisley, three sandwich courses lead to a BEng in construction engineering and BSc degrees in construction management and construction and environmental management. All include periods of paid work experience. Placements attract salaries ranging from £10,000 to £15,000.

At Salford, close cooperation with construction companies along with special funding arrangements mean that many promising students enjoy sponsorship.

One of Salford's ex-students, Rufus Wilkinson, who graduated from Salford seven years ago and went to work as construction manager for his "long-suffering sponsor" Bovis Lend Lease (formerly Bovis Construction), ended up in charge of the concrete superstructure, roofworks and artworks of Manchester's latest architectural masterpiece - the Lowry.

At the Southampton Institute, a trilogy of honours degrees - a BSc in construction; and two BAs in architectural technology, one specialising in interior design - were awarded 22 points by the QAA. An optional exchange programme with an American university has just been launched.

According to the Institute, 88 per cent of graduates from construction degrees entered good jobs within six months of completing their degrees. Graduates became highly paid engineers, construction managers, trainee site managers and quantity, area and building surveyors.

Apart from the universities already mentioned, the crÿme de la crÿme in this field also includes: Kingston University, top of the "league" with a maximum QAA score of 24 points; Oxford Brookes and Plymouth (both with 23 out of 24); and Northumbria at Newcastle, Liverpool John Moores, Coventry, Nottingham Trent, Westminster, Loughborough and UMIST - all with 22. The College of North West London also scored 22.

With such abundant excellence, there can be no excuse for Britain to continue lagging behind the rest of Europe in the construction industry. The talent that Luton's Stephen Mortimer is seeking does exist. All that's needed is a goodly few more bums on those vacant university seats.

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