Dick Evans, Principal, Stockport College of Further & Higher Education.
Over the past five to ten years, the further education sector has seen a serious and steep decline in enrolments in vocational science, engineering and construction. The reasons for this decline are multidimensional and reflect the major transformations that have occurred, not only in the world of work but also within the workings of the global economy. The long and deep recession in construction and engineering has seriously impacted on the number of students studying these subjects in further education. As companies have downsized and outsourced their services, fewer staff are released to colleges to continue their studies. Certainly, the growing perception that engineering, science and construction do not offer secure careers have deterred people from thinking about entering to study these disciplines.
Colleges, and increasingly universities, are finding it difficult to resource these programmes of study. Fewer students, coupled with insufficient and incentive funding from the Funding Councils, have brought about a number of closures or reductions in the importance and visibility of departments of science, engineering and construction.
So, what are colleges and universities to do when they are confronted with these challenges? We do live in a scientific and technological world and this will become of increasing importance to all members of society. Institutions which have resources and expertise in these areas are looking, obviously, for new areas of development in terms of curriculum and provision which is more appropriate to the future demands of employers.
One very exciting opportunity is in the area of environmental sciences and technologies. Analysis of a number of employment forecasting reports would indicate a major growth in the technical and managerial aspects of the environment One such report from the Institute of Employment Research indicates that the growth expected between 1994/2001 is around 20% and an order of magnitude greater than the average growth of employment expected during this period across all areas. When one further analyses the figures, it is found that the associated elements include pollution control, land reclamation and energy conservation.
The whole area of new build or the improvement of existing building stock requires a detailed knowledge of energy and its management, particularly elements around conservation and utilisation. Managerial and technological expertise are required to tackle some of the major challenges that the world is confronted with in terms of energy and its conservation. longer be boxed into separate specialist subjects.
Traditionally universities and colleges, and indeed a great deal of the school curriculum, is located in boxes with boundaries. Boundaries not only in terms of subject content but also the way the institutions are managed e.g. departments/faculties of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, construction etc. If we are to begin to accept the challenges, these structures must change fundamentally. Traditional specialist departments need to work together and understand holistically the kind of issues that need to be taught
There is already evidence across the FE and HE sectors that science and engineering programmes are being offered with other subjects, for example management modem languages, information technology etc, but this is but one aspect of the transformation that is required within the world of education and training. There needs to be a true fusion between subjects so that they are not taught in any way perceived as separate.
The energy technician is a good example of this. These individuals need to acquire the skills, knowledge, understanding and competence to appreciate the scientific and technological aspects of their work. In addition awareness of the legal aspects of pollution control and management as well as energy management and conservation are essential. For energy technicians, institutions need to configure programmes of study which utilise their expertise and resources across the institution. New methods of teaching and learning need to be introduced to produce highly qualified craftspeople, technicians; both graduates and post-graduates.
The real challenge lies at the earlier stages, in laying the foundations for people who will become facilities managers in companies and tackle some of the new management challenges. Hopefully many of these individuals, through their programmes of continuous professional development, will be able to progress onto higher studies but it is this initial stage that is so important: that of developing the concept of the energy technician. Stockport College is beginning to discuss these developments with a number of local Universities.
The development and creation of programmes of study for the energy technician could offer real opportunities for institutions to regenerate their vocational science, engineering and built environment technology activities to provide an adequate stock and flow of highly qualified individuals into these essential new areas of employment.
The challenges are immense. There is a need for radical and fundamental changes in the way institutions are managed and organised and the way in which these subjects are taught and learnt. It promises to be an exciting set of challenges.