Engineering a better future

Students, apprentices, schoolchildren and research scientists learn engineering skills side by side at a new über campus that aims, says Jim Kelly, to encourage students to progress further along the engineer's career chain
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Today in Dagenham, Essex, a new £47m building officially opens, one that looks like a cross between a particle accelerator (the bulging pod that breaks through the smooth outer skin is a lecture theatre) and the headquarters of a multinational drugs company. Fountains play in a bowl of grass protected from the surrounding desolation by high earth ramparts.

Close to the Ford engine works and within sight of the Dartford Bridge, this was once an open field where the car manufacturer put out car engine blocks to rust - a process that allowed them to be sealed before being machine-finished. Now, this classic brownfield site is the Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence (CEME) - a single campus for the teaching of engineering from GCSE level, through Modern Apprenticeship, GNVQs and vocational A-levels, Foundation Degrees, full degrees, PhDs and on to further research. Five universities are linked to the project - the University of East London (UEL), Anglia Polytechnic University, Loughborough, Cardiff and Warwick - alongside two local further education colleges. It is not difficult to see why. The supply of skilled engineers is critical to the survival of the subject. The Royal Academy of Engineering recently warned of the "precarious position" of its field of study, and calculated that 46 university departments had closed since 1996.

"I think it is the most exciting thing to happen on the Thames in terms of engineering since Brunel built the Great Eastern," says Malcolm Carr-West, coordinator for the on-site New Technology Institute, whose job it is to monitor course quality on behalf of university partners. "And it's about as advanced," he adds.

But above all the building is a signal to the local community - and the thousands who will drive by on the M25 link-road - that vocational studies can attract the same esteem as academic ones. "This is a state-of-the-art centre which is at the heart of what we are trying to create in this country - a shop window for the progression that can be made from skills-based training to a degree," says Ivan Lewis, the Minister for Lifelong Learning.

Inside, the building reveals itself as a series of shop windows. Behind the inward curve of sheet glass is a "street" which runs the length of the building, in which students, apprentices, trainees, schoolchildren and research scientists can mix. The classrooms boast IT links between PCs and smart boards, surrounded by laboratory equipment. An echoing "shop floor" houses a car repair bay and production line. At the far end is the "pod" where lectures, open to all, can be delivered.

The idea is simply that learners attending the Centre, for example to study craft trades, will be able to go on learning in a clear, step-by-step process. For once the maze of vocational learning will be replaced by the arrow-straight pathway enjoyed by those with purely academic talents. For the universities involved this brings the prospect of vital growth in student numbers, and a rich premium for widening access in a severely disadvantaged area. (There is a crèche, for example, to encourage women into engineering.)

Dr Paul Smith, head of the school of computing and technology at UEL, believes that the Centre will help trainees and apprentices progress to a foundation degree - and beyond. "From the top to the bottom there are step-off points, but there is the potential to go all the way to the top. It is a complete ladder of learning." Masters and PhD programmes will be offered by Loughborough, Cardiff Business School is already linked up to the Centre to deliver its "lean thinking" courses, and Warwick Business School is interested in establishing an engineering MBA.

The Centre epitomises the Government's ambitions to recast education and training to meet the needs of industry. It operates in many ways as a facilities manager, renting space to educational providers, to match the needs of local schools, employers and individuals. It is in partnership with several private sector organisations but the "cornerstone" link is with Ford - which has put £6m into the higher education phase alone, as well as £6m into basic skills and FE, and donated the land.

But to be a success, the Centre will need to reach beyond Ford, and its substantial requirement for new skills and professional development, to the small, medium-sized and micro- companies in its supply chain, and to other local enterprises. "This is the kind of thing that breaks down the Berlin Wall between the workplace and universities," says Lewis. CEME has an on-site new company incubator with 45 units.

Rod Harwood, the Centre's chief executive, has another priority - making sure the substantial government investment in the campus helps to regenerate the Thames Gateway region. The traditional pattern of undergraduate study, in which aspiring engineers would leave East London and head for Loughborough or other elite universities with strong engineering or manufacturing roots, has been reversed. "Rather than let students go to different parts of the UK - where they might well stay - this brings the universities here and helps get the local economy going," he says. To make an impact CEME needs to achieve rapid growth. Currently, 380 learners use the building - but the target is 1,200, many of them part-time or on block release.

Will places like this become more common? Sir Howard Newby, the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is keen to see universities meshing with the vocational sector. "This is an exciting development at Dagenham," he says. "We need to do more to promote a seamless flow through vocational training, from the FE sector, into higher education. In the future we hope to see more of what we now call 'articulation agreements' between the two."

The Government hopes that the new Sector Skills Councils - responsible for addressing gaps in education and training which can cripple particular industries - will latch on to the CEME model. We could, perhaps, see similar centres addressing the needs of the chemical industry, tourism, or the gas industry.

Purists may wonder what happened to the idea of the multi-disciplinary university, dedicated to producing the well-rounded, cultured graduate who can benefit from spending three years in the company of a wide range of fellow scholars. Is not CEME dedicated to a single discipline and therefore dangerously narrow in concept? Lewis brushes aside such niceties, reflecting the determination in the Government - and most particularly in the Treasury - to ensure that money spent in higher education benefits the economy. "Places like CEME are a response to the very strong argument that universities need to be far more attuned to the needs of the labour market," he says.