Degrees fit industry skills gaps
By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website
It is probably safe to say that not many British universities have their own corporate jet.
So having a Learjet on one of its campuses does set Kingston University in Surrey apart from the crowd.
But then it does have a Boeing 737 and a Hawker Siddeley 125 too - all strictly educational.
They are pored over by students doing Kingston's aircraft engineering foundation degrees.
Inside the Lear's cramped cockpit the engineering officer in charge of the laboratory at Roehampton Vale, ex-Navy man Dave Haskell, flicks up the two switches which arm the thrust reversers on the engines.
Pulling back the paddles above the throttle levers hauls back the reverse thrust buckets at the rear of the aircraft.
The students then get to take the thing apart to see how it works, and put it back together so they understand how to repair it - studying can hardly be more hands on.
Kingston's courses exemplify the way the relatively new, two-year foundation degrees are being used in collaboration with industry to produce highly employable graduates.
There is a significant and escalating shortage of aircraft maintenance engineers, the university says.
The head of its school of engineering, Peter Mason, said: "Companies know they are going to find it harder to recruit people. They are starting to realise that unless they do something they are going to have a major problem."
So the university is working with British Airways Engineering at Heathrow airport and KLM UK Engineering at Norwich airport on courses which lead to European Aviation Safety Agency engineering licences.
The university also offers courses at Newcastle Aviation Academy - which is where the 737 and HS 125 aircraft are - and City of Bristol College.
British Airways Engineering training delivery manager, John Quinlisk, said the course would produce a steady stream of licensed engineers.
"There are only 20,000 fully qualified aircraft engineers worldwide and our partnership with the university gives students the opportunity to join an exclusive club."
Dr Mason said: "That's what foundation degrees are all about. We have worked with the industry to develop the curriculum then we match it to the higher education qualifications framework.
"It gives them what they want. They are not going to get an engineering graduate who doesn't know one end of an aircraft from another.
"Our graduates can be put in a workplace and they are immediately productive."
Getting onto the course requires typically 140 university entry points: A-levels in maths and a suitable science subject or an engineering-based vocational A-level or a BTec National - though the lecturers stress they are interested in all sorts and can offer additional support for people who are really motivated.
Student Jamie Cooper, 21, was studying aerospace engineering at Bedford College.
"I was going for apprenticeships when a friend of mine brought up a prospectus for Kingston and that looked better," he said.
He is now nearing the end of his two-year course, having spent half the time at Kingston and half with KLM.
"I want to go straight into a job," he said. His sights are on Monarch Airlines, based near his home in Bedfordshire.
Being a practical sort of person, he enjoyed that side of the course and said the "maths and science stuff" was harder going.
"I had never found myself to be a university person, I just wanted to get out there and earn money," he said.
"But aircraft engineering is hard to get into. That's what's good about this course - you are licensed, you are valuable to a company."
Like an increasing number of students, he plans to combine work with doing a "top-up" course which leads to an honours degree.
Senior lecturer Kurt Grosse, who joined Kingston after a career with airlines, said 90 people had taken that route this year.
"They can do a foundation degree then get some experience and do the top-up part-time while they are earning some money," he said.
Another student, Ana Cadena, shows just how global the profession - and universities - have become. She grew up in Ecuador.
"I always wanted to study about aircraft but in my country it's a male thing," she said.
So she had been learning food and beverage management until she made friends with some pilots.
She spent five months in New Zealand gaining a private pilot's licence and got interested in how aircraft work.
Then she looked for a university course in aircraft engineering and found Kingston's on the internet.
Sitting in the engineering school's fixed-base Boeing 747-200 simulator, she said it had proved harder than she thought it was going to be.
"But I really, really love it," she said.
"The second year is a lot harder. You study about digital systems and aerodynamics and electronics, which I wasn't familiar with, so it's very hard for me - but I'm loving electrics."
The simulator, though far from state-of-the-art in airliner terms, is ideal for students learning how to figure out what is wrong with systems.
Kingston has another two-way collaboration, with vehicle equipment manufacturer Delphi, for those studying automotive engineering .
Another partner is Lotus, which is as good a reason as any to have a shiny Exige sports car on campus.
Delphi has a growing need for skilled diesel engine technicians - an area in which rapidly advancing technology is outstripping the abilities of the traditional vehicle maintenance workforce, according to senior lecturer Denis Marchant.
He said one of Kingston's strengths was the application of knowledge.
"We have a very high ratio of our kids getting good jobs."
So far the growth of foundation degrees has been spectacular in percentage terms - almost doubling this year. Kingston's aircraft engineering course has gone from 36 students to 10 times that number in five years.
But overall the number of students on such courses is still small, with about 13,000 applicants for full-time places this autumn, out of more than 384,000 university applicants in total.
However, these degrees are where the funding for expansion in higher education is being concentrated.
So not only do good courses offer their graduates a high likelihood of employment, but a better chance of getting into university in the first place than for many a traditional, three-year degree.