'There's a huge national asset there - they spend a fortune training these people' said Sean Smedley, project manager of the new scheme at University College, London. 'If for the sake of an academic year - in fact it's only nine months - we can turn them into graduates, it's got to be good for the country.'
UCL has responded to the growing trend towards accelerated degrees for people with relevant qualifications and experience, and to large numbers of highly trained personnel entering the civilian jobs market as a result of cuts to the armed forces by pioneering the 'work-based learning project'.
The scheme has targeted the cream of the services' technical specialists - Army warrant officers and Naval artificers in their thirties. They receive academic credit for the training and expertise they gained in the forces.
They spend a year 'distance learning' - revising and covering material not learnt as part of their service qualifications. They receive credit exempting them from first-year degree work and half of the normal second year, so they have to sit four out of the eight second-year exams. Two of them - in mathematics and electromagnetics - are compulsory, chosen as academically rigorous. 'They're tough - very mathematical', said Mr Smedley. For the optional subjects, this year's candidates chose telecommunications and microprocessors.
If they pass, students then attend UCL for a normal third year leading to a BEng(Honours) degree. Three of the first four candidates - two from the Navy and one from the Army - reached the standard, and are now beginning the final, full-time year, living in a hall of residence with students perhaps 15 years younger than them. In the third year they take six subjects, all optional, and complete a project. One student said he might explore ways of sending fax data over the radio.
The project is funded by the Department of Employment, which supports a number of schemes at British universities attracting students who are different from the traditional 18-year-old entrant with A-levels. 'Most of these contracts are at the 'new' universities', said Mr Smedley. 'UCL is probably the only 'traditional' university doing this.'
UCL's departments of Academic Enterprise and Continuing Education made a bid for Department of Employment funding. Mr Smedley and Chris Pitt, professor of electrical engineering, then visited the Army's School of Electrical Engineering at Arborfield, Berkshire and the Navy's schools at HMS Sultan and Collingwood, near Portsmouth, to assess what academic level Army and Navy technicians had reached. It was broadly equivalent to an HND.
An added attraction, Mr Smedley said, was that the forces kept detailed records of all the courses the men had attended and the qualifications gained.
UCL puts about 60 students through its electrical engineering degree each year, so 10 service students was the maximum if the balance on the course was not to be upset.
Twenty to 30 servicemen were interest in the scheme and were all interviewed. Eight were selected; four chose not to join the scheme because they found jobs. The remaining four began the 'distance learning' year. One did not pass the four exams and rather than retake them, joined a similar scheme at Portsmouth University taking two years.
The original idea envisaged service personnel taking a year out at UCL to complete the degree and then returning to their service careers armed with degrees, but all this year's candidates took voluntary redundancy from the forces.
'We thought it might be attractive to the services only to lose someone for a year,' said Mr Smedley. 'In fact they're all in their thirties, with families, so they can't really afford more than a year out of employment anyway.'
Terry Norman, 36, was a Foreman of Signals - a Warrant Officer in the Royal Corps of Signals - specialising in satellite communications. He learnt about the scheme only last December while still serving as second-in-command of the Nato satellite terminal at Balado Bridge, north of Edinburgh.
Terry left the Army at the end of August. He had completed an HND at the Army School of Signals, Blandford, Dorset. 'It's a traditional HND, very academic. That stood me in very good stead for the first year work,' he said. 'The practical experience as well helped me make sense of the theory I'd learnt, so it wasn't a daunting jump to the degree work.'
But, from November to July? 'It was a pretty steep curve. It's been a bit of a struggle. I was delighted when I passed the second-year exams. But now I've got nine months on a level playing field with everyone else.'
Terry has two children: Colette, aged 17, and Toby, aged 14. After graduation he would like to work in telecommunications. 'I see great opportunities in the future with the development of cable communications,' he said.
The other successful candidates were Trevor Pratt, a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy, specialising in ship inspection, and Perry Reid, also a CPO, who worked in submarines.
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