Research Posts: Doctors to cure industry's ills: Pioneering courses for graduate engineers are designed to produce an elite cadre of manager-engineers, reports Liz Heron

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The Independent Online
PIONEERING schemes offering vocational training for engineers at doctoral level are being expanded as part of a radical overhaul of postgraduate education in engineering. The changes could lead to half of doctoral students being assigned to commercial research in industry by the end of the century.

This academic year 45 students took up new places on a four-year Doctorate of Engineering pilot programme, now into its second year, that is designed to launch the creme de la creme of engineering graduates on fast-track management careers in industry. Eng D students work in an industrial setting on a real problem set by a sponsoring company.

Student numbers have also been increased by 50 per cent on three other pilot programmes: at Warwick University; at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist) with Manchester University; and at the University College of Swansea along with the University of Wales College of Cardiff. Two new pilots have been started; one by Brunel and Surrey universities and the other by Cranfield Institute of Technology.

Meanwhile the Department of Trade and Industry has announced that it will fund a third year of the Postgraduate Training Partnership scheme, in which groups of Ph D or M Sc students in five pilot programmes spend up to 75 per cent of their time working on real problems in an industrial research organisation.

The engineering board of the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC), which runs all these schemes, plans to make them the basis for a new stream of doctoral training for students seeking a career in industry that would complement the Ph D as a preparation for an academic career.

Vince Osgood, secretary of the engineering board, says: 'We would like to see a shift in the balance of the doctoral studentships we offer to about 50 per cent vocational and 50 per cent academic over the next three years or so.'

The board is also discussing ways of rationalising various other SERC schemes set up over recent years to enhance the industrial relevance of postgraduate training, such as the Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering Research (Case), Total Technology awards and the Teaching Company Scheme, and ways to divide the schemes between the vocational and academic streams.

'We would like all traditional Ph Ds to have some broadening skills and to do academic research with industrial involvement,' Mr Osgood says. A review of the engineering board's education and training programme published earlier this year recommended that 30 per cent of traditional Ph Ds be converted into Case awards, in which the student's project is jointly determined and supervised by an academic and an industrialist from a collaborating company and the student works for at least three months in the firm. It was suggested that a pounds 500 incentive be offered to departments for every studentship converted to a Case award.

Other ways under discussion of enhancing the industrial relevance of Ph Ds in the 'academic stream' include awarding more studentships to departments with a strong industrial slant to their research, and offering training vouchers to students that could be used to buy places on courses in managerial and interpersonal skills.

The Doctor of Engineering degree is an ambitious attempt to provide British industry with a cadre of manager-engineers similar to those who run many companies in France and Germany. A hybrid of the German Dr Ing, which involves industrial experience and team leadership, and the American version of the Ph D, which can include a substantial taught element, the Eng D is likely to become a model for vocational doctorates in other subjects. James Powell, chairman of the SERC engineering board education and training scheme, says that it is the highest form of engineering qualification that can be obtained through a standardised programme of study.

The course is a year longer than the traditional Ph D and attracts a higher basic stipend than other SERC studentships - pounds 7,500, plus travel costs - which must be topped up by the student's sponsoring company by at least pounds 2,000. University fees are met by SERC, which also contributes pounds 30,000 per year to each department that takes part in the scheme. Students are jointly selected for the course by the university and the sponsoring company and it is expected that recipients of awards would normally have a first-class honours degree.

Eng D students spend half their time working in the sponsoring company and a quarter of their time on taught courses and they have both an academic and an industrial supervisor. Researching in an industrial context means they have to take account of factors, such as financial constraints, time- scales and personnel management, of which traditional Ph Ds are insufficiently aware, according to industrialists. The taught courses cover management and communication skills as well as technical subjects.

'Both the level of student demand and interest from employers suggest that we have got the Eng D right,' says Mr Osgood of SERC. 'Some of the courses are oversubscribed by a factor of 10 and employers have not only been willing to supplement the SERC stipend but in some cases have funded students entirely themselves.'

At the University College of Swansea all the students are working on projects for one company, British Steel Strip Metals. At Warwick University students can gain advanced entry on to the Eng D from part- and full-time Masters courses run by the Warwick Manufacturing Group, part of the engineering department.

At Umist the Eng D is part of a scheme to promote links with companies in a nearby industrial estate and there is a strong commitment to involving small businesses. Three of this year's intake of 15 are sponsored by companies with fewer than 30 employees.

Umist students are working on the central research and development concerns of their sponsoring companies. A student sponsored by British Aerospace Commercial Division is playing a significant role in developing a new assembly system for small commercial aircraft that should enable an aircraft to be built in such a way that the company will be paid by the customer for the finished product before it has paid suppliers for the parts, thus improving cash-flow.

Kevin Barber, director of the Eng D programme at Umist, says: 'British Aerospace are overjoyed with the scheme and are planning to take two more students this year. They see it as a way of identifying high-quality young people who can join the management stream early. They've got four years to look at the students and see if they are as good as they thought they were and to work with us to address any problems.'

(Photograph omitted)

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