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Engineering education in the United Kingdom and continental Europe.

Engineering education assumes different aspects in different countries and this makes it very difficult to compare foreign qualifications. The complexity and diversity of the European education systems are such that, after attempting to establish equicalences, the European Community adopted the wise principle of -- for most professions -- recognizing a degree awarded by a University in a member state as valid in the whole of the EEC.

The differences between Engineering (including Computer Science) education in the United Kingdom and its equivalents in continental Europe are many.

However, as continental systems are very diverse, a number of "dangerous" generalizations have been made in this article.

"A" levels of baccalaureat

The British model is quite unique, since University courses are shorter (three years for a full-time degree) than continental equivalents (four or even five years). However, this does not mean that the British engineer (in this article, engineer also means computer scientist) leaves the education system with a lower degree of technical competence. In fact, the years spent in technical (specific) education are much the same.

In the United Kingdom, general education stops with the "O" levels, at the age of 16. During his last two years at school ("A" levels), the Briton only studies two, three or (maximum) four subjects, which are a direct foundation to the career he will follow at University.

In most of the rest of the world, however, school is much less specialized and general education often stops at 18. Thus, the high school diploma (Baccalaureate" in France, "Maturite" in Switzerland) is a general qualification. Its equivalent (the "A" levels) is a specific one. As a result, continental universities have to cover a large part of "A" level work during the first two years of their courses.

Both system have their advantages. British graduates tend to finish their courses earlier (21 - if they do not take "a year out"), which means that their integration to the economy happens sooner.

Continental graduates seldom obtian their degrees before the age of 22 or 23 (often, especially in Germany, they graduate even later). Technical competence is roughly equivalent, but the additional years in the education system give the continentals a wider general background.

If one believes the engineer should only know about engineering, one can accept the point that the foreign education systems contain more "padding." Their engineers know about engineering, but they also have "a sea of general knowledge on only one inch of depth."

However, when a technologist is promoted to management, other skills are required and a generalist background becomes an asset. This perhaps explains why continental engineers are found more often at the head of their companies than their British counterparts. British engineers tend to stay in the technical functions; continental equivalents tend to move on.

A great advantage of continental engineers over British ones is their competence in foreign languages. This is perhaps the most visible result of the longer time spent in the education system. However, it is also the consequence of closer geographical proximity.

The British specialist

The British system offers, however, a number of significant advantages. As stated above, engineers in this country graduate earlier. The benefits are two-fold: less years spent in education (good for the tax-payer) and an earlier start of the working life.

Advocates of the continental model argue that a wider cultural background results in a larger contribution to the nation later in life.

A great advantage of the British system is the existence of "Sandwich" courses, which are not as widespread in the continent. This means that many British engineers already have one year of industrial experience by the time they begin their first job. Such training allows them to become operational much faster.

The UK, moreover, has an extremely wide range of MSc and postgraduate diploma courses, seldom matched in the rest of Europe. The existence of "conversion" courses allows graduates of one discipline to obtain a good background in another. Many Britons undertake these courses in institutions different from those in which they obtained their first degrees, a feature that widens their horizons.

In many European countries, the only academic qualification following a degree is a research doctorate. Where Masters are done, they tend to be in the form of an extra year of studies in the same university and in the same field. Thus, the continental Masters structure is somewhat similar to the Scottish model (three years for an ordinary degree, four years for an honors degree).

Moreover, British term time tends to be somewhat longer than in the rest of Europe. This does not necessarily mean that continental students get longer holidays ( and it does not mean that they do not work equally hard). Continental institutions often have two or three examination sessions per year (rather than just one), which implies a reduction in the number of teaching weeks.

A further advantage is the important role played (in the United Kingdom) by professional bodies such as the British Computer Society and the Institution of Electrical Engineers. A large number of our continental neighbors do not have these types of organizations and -- where they exist -- they tend to fulfill somewhat different roles.

In Britain, after several years of practical experience, a graduate can become a Chartered Engineer. This status can alsl be obtained by professionals who do not have an academic degree. In most of continental Europe, university degrees (BSc's and doctorates) are often the only official titles obtained by engineers. Therefore, recognized titles are awarded for academic achievement, but there is no certification of the validity of industrial experience.

In summary, the British tend to give their engineers a narrower, technical education, with emphasis in preparing the student for working life. Over the continent, they tend tp subscribe to a wider concept of education.

Lectures and professors

In the United Kingdom, a lecture does not necessarily require a doctorate to obtain a job at a university or polytechnic (although this helps). The title of professor only comes after years of teaching and research.

In continental Europe, the structure is very different. A Ph.d is essential to obtain a full-time teaching/research job at a university, and persons occupying these positions are very often called professors.

British lecturers will be dismayed to find out that, at least in Switzerland, professors are extremely well paid and -- as far as teaching is concerned -- they are only responsible for 8 hours of taeching a week.

The assistants

A professor, however, is expected to do a lot more than lecturing and normally carriers out extensive research and consultancy work. In theory, he/she should he free from administrative tasks such as marking coursework.

These supporting activities are carried out by "Assistants" -- a status which does not exist, to my knowledge, in the United Kingdom -- assistants are neither lecturers nor students, but a mixture of both. Apart from helping a professor in his teaching and administrative duties, an assistant is often involved in research and/or consultancy and is usually preparing a Ph.d thesis. In theory, the assistant works for the university for 30 hours a week, and has 10 hours to pursue his research. Assistantships tend to be temporary positions (four or five years), and are seen as means of financing a student during the years of his doctorate.

The result is that a Ph.D candidate is seldom engage full-time in his thesis, which means that continental doctorates take longer to complete.

Engineering in Switzerland

Engineering (and computer science) education in Switzerland are carried out at four levels:

Polytechnics: There are only two Polytechnics in Switzerland (Zurich and Lausanne), and these are elite institutions. The title awarded to the graduate is the EPF, which is considered to be somewhat higher than the British BSc.

Universities: Swiss universities do not have engineering faculties, but they do have departments of Computer Science. Often, a difference is made between "Business Computer Science" (which in many instances is taught at management and economics faculties); and "Scientific Computer Science" (usually run by science faculties, with a strong emphasis in mathematics). The title awarded is the "Licence" (Degree), usually taking four years. The University of Neuchatel is the exception, as it also runs a "Diploma in Business Information Technology" which is offered as a two-year program (this can be considered, roughly, a "half-degree").

Engineering Schools: These institutions are a mixture of British Polytechnics and Technical Colleges. The title awarded to engineers (and computer scientists) is the ETS, which is somewhat lower than the British BSc but higher than other British diplomas.

Professional Schools: These institutions are concerned with the training of engineering technicians, analyst-programmers, etc.

Moises-Enrique Rodriguez obtained a high school diploma in Columbia, South America; and then studied for seven years in the United Kingdom ('A' levels, BSc Sandwich Degree, MSc). After graduation and a period in industry, he joined a Swiss university where he presently holds a teaching position.
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Author:Rodriguez, Moises-Enrique
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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