Challenged to diversify or die

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Famous for its pork pies, Melton Mowbray is less well known for its further education college. But in engineering at least, this small institution has a growing reputation.

The Leicestershire college, which draws around 1,000 full-time equivalent students from a largely rural catchment area, is not immune to the problems affecting the subject nationally.

"My biggest task and biggest problem is recruitment," admits head of engineering Lew Birch. "It's extremely difficult and we have to put a lot of energy into it."

He adds: "If you look in the local press people are asking for engineers. But people's perception is that engineering is a dirty job, standing in a factory turning things out. Some of those things are true but it's only a small part of what engineering has to offer. The new technology is very exciting.

"Maybe careers officers and teachers are not as up-to-date as they used to be. It's not about being a number in a factory and clocking on and off."

Melton Mowbray has been swift to capitalise on the Modern Apprenticeship scheme, setting up agreements with a consortium of pet food, automotive and plastics companies.

"They don't guarantee that they'll take our people but they do guarantee that they will fish in our pond first," says Mr Birch.

Somerset College of Arts and Technology was also commended by inspectors for its engineering, in particular the breadth of courses, which range from basic qualifications through Higher National Diplomas to degree-level programmes run with Plymouth University.

Head of technology Kim Saunders-Singer says the quality of his teachers and college managers' support have been major factors.

"Historically we have had a very good investment in engineering. A lot depends on the politics of the college and the importance put on it."

In the current climate of falling capital investment he believes that for many engineering departments it is a case of diversify or die.

"Unless we identify the real cost of manufacturing and trades skills and keeping our equipment up-to-date we run the risk of falling far behind the industry. We have to run professional packages that are relevant to industry - self-financing systems to bring in cash."

Somerset have just embarked on a three-year project to develop Internet links with faculties in Germany, Italy and Ireland. They are also responding to the theme park boom by seeking accreditation for a Higher National Diploma in leisure technology - a mixture of business and engineering - which studies the mechanics and management of everything from virtual reality to roller-coasters. "There's a lot of engineering in a helter-skelter."

Mr Saunders is disappointed by the low intake of female students in engineering. "Those that do are high achievers and come out with some of the best jobs."

But he thinks both girls and boys are put off engineering by the hard work involved as much as its image.

"The profile of engineering in this country has got to be changed - our culture doesn't allow it enough status. It's not a cushy number, it's rigorous and, at the higher levels, it's very academic. But those standards have to be maintained."

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