Saturday, 28 March 2015

Engineering Education: Are Degree Apprenticeships the Answer?

In James Atherton's post on our blog, he wondered whether the "call for a revival of graduate-level apprenticeships may finally be heeded".

It turns out it already has been, "Degree Apprenticeships" were rolled out mid-March, and we already had "Higher Apprenticeships", which allowed degree level study alongside vocational training.

There is however a problem with such approaches in a society as conscious of class nuance as the UK. As Alison Wolf pointed out, many consider vocational qualifications a great idea - for other people's children.The supposed equality of degrees in the UK is already a polite fiction.

In an article in "The Chemical Engineer" magazine discussing these changes,  they say "For hundreds of years, universities have offered up something philosophically different from vocational training courses - focussed on growing pure knowledge and understanding rather than simply making students ready for the world of work".

This sentence sums up a number of the key misunderstandings, generalizations, stupidities and manifestations of snobbery which will make any "Degree Apprenticeship" a second rate qualification in the UK.

What for example is "pure knowledge and understanding"?  Whatever that might be, it is nothing to do with engineering. Engineering may be "impure" in the sense of being applied and practical, but the application of the positive value judgement "pure" to knowledge and understanding is simply snobbery. Knowledge itself is neither pure nor impure, except that we judge it so.
The original purpose of universities was monkish study. Insisting that everything which takes place in universities has to conform with earlier ideas of their purpose is illogical. It is analogous to the lexical "root fallacy" where the true meaning of a word is its supposed original one. Words change their meanings, as do institutions. If it were ever true that universities were ever about what TCE magazine says they were, they aren't now.

In any case, chemical engineering only made it into universities in 1887. There can be no appeal to hundreds of years of tradition by chemical engineers. That first chemical engineering course (delivered by George E Davis, a practical working engineer and chemist now seen as the founding father of chemical engineering) was criticized by contemporary snobbish academic purists for being mere "commonplace know-how".

Such are the roots of chemical engineering, but it seems that it wishes it were higher-born. Medicine doesn't seem to worry about being a practical business, why should we? But of course in the UK, medicine is a profession, and an "engineer" rods your drains.

The cartoon at the top shows the hierarchy of purity in academia. There was not room in the frame for those teaching apprentices, who would be around a metre to the left of the sociologist at the scale used. Rather than insisting that the answer is a new qualification (understood by all to be for working class children) we need to remind engineering that it was never pure.

To get a job as an engineer, graduates need nowadays to have already experienced work as an engineer. Industrial placements, internships and so on are on the CV of every smart budding engineer.

So, what is the difference between a supposedly pure degree, with a year or so of industrial experience, and a job straight out of school with an applied degree on the side?

In terms of learning, nothing significant, (though there is every chance that the vocational students will be worked harder both at work and at university, and actually learn more). In a society alert to every shade of class distinction, everything.

The apprenticeship route will not be competing with Russell Group universities for the "best" A-level students, it is for the bright working class kids who don't get those grades. It will lock them into the slow lane in their professional lives, just as we have seen the old degree level technical apprenticeships do to those who took them.