One of the leading lights in the British construction industry has called on all universities to give more young college leavers the opportunity to convert their vocational qualifications into degrees.
Alasdair Fernie, who was the construction lead for Glasgow’s new “superhospital”, said: “Universities should make sure that they give tradespeople an opportunity.
“If someone has the appropriate qualification with a couple of years’ experience, universities should be putting them into third year,” he said.
Mr Fernie’s own experience of starting as an apprentice, then gaining an Higher National Diploma (HND) at college before entering the third year of an engineering and management degree at Glasgow Caledonian University, put him on the road to success, he told TESS.
“I think because I had worked at the coalface, I had a real appreciation for the industry. But my degree allowed me to sit back and think about the wider parts of the industry,” he said. “By the time I graduated, I was able to take control of a project. I was 26 years old when I finished my own £12 million project.”
In November, TESS reported on the interim report from the Commission on Widening Access, which revealed that many post-92 universities, including Mr Fernie’s former place of study, Glasgow Caledonian, gave full credit to the majority of students coming to them with an HND. Of the 1,288 students who arrived with the qualification, 791 were able to move straight into the second or third year at the university.
But at Scotland’s ancient universities, just 12 out of the 113 students who already held an HND from previous studies at college were afforded the same opportunity.
Mr Fernie, who works as project director at Brookfield Multiplex, said that his own career and those of his course mates at university showed the potential for students who came into higher education through a vocational route. “When I was at the university, there were seven tradesmen in the class, and they all excelled in their industry,” he said. But he believes that vocational qualifications, including apprenticeships, are often not valued in the way they should be.
“In countries like Germany, the people who come through as master joiners and carpenters are held in such high regard,” Mr Fernie said. “Here, schools still say to someone who is not performing so well, ‘Why don’t you try and become a bricklayer’. That hasn’t really changed.”
He is keen to ensure that staff on his own projects are able to benefit from learning opportunities, and has sent employees to university on day release on a number of occasions. “We pay their tuition – that is imperative,” he said.
Born into a Glasgow family with a joinery business, Mr Fernie left school to pursue a career in the construction industry.
“It made sense to go into joinery,” he recalled. But construction sites at that time, he said, were “very, very hard places”.
“There were not the same working conditions as there are now. I quickly realised my best option was to go back into FE and try to make a difference to the sector,” he added.
Mr Fernie enrolled initially on a course at Cardonald College and, through part-time study and night classes, gained a range of vocational qualifications, eventually completing an HND in construction management at the College of Building and Printing – which, through two mergers, has now become City of Glasgow College.
Mr Fernie said that the guidance he got from mentors in education helped him to develop the resilience he required to run a number of multi-million-pound construction projects. “When the wheels fall off, you have to still be able to be driving the bus,” he explained. “You have to have a certain style of leadership. Otherwise you lose the team’s confidence.”
Last month, he shared the experience of building the £600 million Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow – the largest ever NHS hospital – with both college and university students in a construction masterclass at Glasgow Caledonian University.
Alasdair Fernie: CV
Education: Greenfield Primary and Govan High, Glasgow; Cardonald College (SCOTVEC in carpentry and joinery), College of Building and Printing (HND in construction management), Glasgow Caledonian University (BSc in engineering and management)
Career: apprentice, project director at Brookfield Multiplex, fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors