Globalisation and the mobility of engineers

Integrating the international education of engineers in the curriculum, the European experience.

JM 352

Publications Jean MICHEL
Page d'accueil Jean MICHEL


7th World Congress on Engineering Education , Budapest, March 2006

published in IDEAS (WFEO) - N°13 - pp. 45-52



Developing the international mobility of engineers is a key issue. One can easily find tracks of such a preocccupation in examining the archives of engineering institutions as well as of engineering schools. A strengthening of the internationalization of engineering practices and engineering education programmes can be observed in the three-four last decades. The trend is obvious within Europe and many efforts were done in order to facilitate the mobility of engineers and of engineering students, staffs and researchers. Very recently, the Bologna Process aiming at creating an European Area in Higher Education leads to a new step which consists in a total re-organization of the higher engineering education system in Europe, introducing also new ideas about competencies recognition. Looking at the consequences of the globalisation on engineering education, it is time to define some measures for an intelligent adaptation of the engineering curriculum and pedagogy to that new context.



Mobility is more and more becoming a key development factor for any professional – whatever the domain – who wants to find interesting jobs and to get a good salary and satisfying conditions of employment. Mobility of manpower, of professional competences and resources (like mobility of financial resources) is also crucial for any company or organisation which has to compete on a more “global” international market. But mobility can also generate problems, which can be counterproductive for the global economy and for people, if one does not take into account the cultural roots without which it is hard to survive and if one does not consider the need for a balanced sustainable future.

In the 60s-80s, mobility was a concept largely promoted by companies managers as well a by specialists working in the fields of innovation and of human resources development. Mobility seemed to be the miraculous solution for fighting the traditional trends towards conservatism. At that period, Toeffler (The Future Shock) developped the idea that people should be encouraged, trained, to change everything, in their professional life as well as in their personal life, in a new international context offering more and more interesting possibilities. Reading again such a book in 2006, it is obvious that Toeffler's vision was right, but certainly he failed in considering that the society would have changed rapidly. It is only now (the first years of the 21st century) that we are forced to consider mobility not only as a "plus” in career, but really as an obligation.

1 - What does mobility mean? What are the many dimensions of mobility and its benefits and its limitations or constraints? And is there some specificity of engineers mobility?

Mobility is often limited, in the professionals' debates, to the physical mobility, that is to say to traveling, studying and working abroad. Of course, this geographical mobility is the most obvious facet. However, it is important also not to forget other dimensions of mobility :

- professional or job mobility : how many times should engineers change their jobs in their life? How many companies should engineers have experienced? How many projects should engineers have managed for being considered as good ones?

- social mobility : involvments, responsibilities, representative activities in various organisations …;

- cultural mobility : sharing views (or life) with people from other cultures for better understanding that the world is not based on a unique, linear thought;

- transdiciplinary mobility : should engineers develop other skills than pure scientific and technological ones?

- methodological mobility : problems can be solved through different ways, with different methods: how engineers are able to become flexible in that domain?

- technological mobility : it is clear that tools are rapidly changing and they can become obstacles if one is not able to use them with some distance.

In other words, mobility can be linked with mental flexibility and thus, with innovation. Mobility is a way to think one's behaviour in given contexts; it allows adaptation to these contexts, it facilitates cooperation, synergy, cross-fertilization. What we have learned from the litterature about innovation and also from the concrete experience of a day-to-day engineer life, is that we generally miss opportunities by lack of mental flexibility and that we are blocking progresses become we are not mobile enough (in a global sens of the word). As consultant working with companies on that issues, I must recognize that they generally are not putting enough emphasis on the promotion of the global mobility of their employees (except to ask them to find another job…) : few training sessions are devoted to the development of flexibility and mobility. In other words, a very short term approach…

2 - What's about engineering education? Are our engineering courses, programmes, universities taking into consideration the development of the global mobility of the young engineers?

In the past, I had the chance to work in a very old and prestigious institution, the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, founded in France in 1747 and I had the chance also to access to the archives of the Ecole. I discovered that the Ecole knew different active periods of development and innovation followed often by long periods of conservatism and stagnation. The vision of the “managers” of the institution during the more progressive periods was very interesting : most of the efforts were put on key issues :

- promoting open, interactive learning approaches or methods (avoiding rigid traditional courses);

- putting emphasis on the propre work of the students or young engineers (projects, site realizations,…);

- making the young people aware of a broad competitive environment (learning from the experience of others,…);

- offering the possibility to some students to travel abroad for periods of six months at least (this was developed since the last decades of the 18th century), with some "business intelligence” work to do;

- creating tools for the dissemination of ideas and projects, pushing also the engineers to publish in some new specialized journals;

- developing a strong experimental use of new information technologies (lithography, photography,…) for facilitating the transfer of multidimensional knowledges among the engineers community;

- strengthening the links with partner institutions, also with scientific and engineering academias and with companies;

- promoting the learning of foreign languages and inviting foreign experts to deliver courses in the Ecole.

In other words, these clever people in charge of preparing the young engineers for their future jobs, had in mind a real and strong vision of what should be a “mobile” engineer, of what should be developed as “mobile” behaviours and competencies.
Analysing the results of such policies (what the educated and trained engineers became and did for the society), I must admit that there is no reasons to reject such progressive ideas. On the contrary, I discovered, also when consulting the archives of the School, how much these ideas were fighted, even by some well-known scientists (for instance in France, by a group of “positivist” engineers during the years 1820-1850); and often these conservatist trends imposed their law with some very rigid approaches of education :

- multiplication of specialized courses (the "content” approach of education);

- compulsory courses, with control of the effective presence of the students;

- poor evaluation methods (exams easy to organize);

- imposing the same programme to every students whatever their routes or origins;

- limiting the periods abroads for students (lack of time for training them);

- creation of rigid textbooks, etc.

More recently, after May 68, a lot of new perspectives were opened. Thus in France (but also in many European countries as well as in America), many pedagogical innovations were stimulated. The key words of the innovations were flexibility and mobility. It became obvious that engineers (especially young engineers) should be prepared for a more open professional life. Continuing education (long life education) started to emerge as a key issue. Active learning methods were encouraged. Flexible cursus were proposed with many choices among various possibilities. The innovative experiences of these 20-30 last years were more and more well known, thanks to the development of Journals such as the European Journal of Engineering Education and to the SEFI annual conferences and others

Mobility was also viewed at that time as an interesting possibility to cross borders, to facilitate links with industry and with other academical institutions. Joint courses or programmes were established and proposed to students. Some engineering schools started to propose “Double diplomas” or “Integrated cursus”. Years after years, it became obvious that one had to encourage young professionals to have experiences abroad, to learn from different cultural perspectives. At that time, the support of the European Commission was essential and one could now look back to that period with much historical interest.

3 - What's for the present decade? What are the change or innovation factors and the new global perspectives that lead to re-think and re-interpretate the concept of mobility?

Just comparing two periods – on the one hand, the years 1990-95, on the other hand, the years 2005-2010 - , one can easily identify new determining changes that have an impact on higher education and on engineering education:

- globalisation considered as a new dimension of economy, with the development of international markets for everything : products, raw materials, resources, manpower, services, ideas; companies are direcly impacted, and now universities too;

- information and communication technologies (Internet, the digitized document, the multimedia, the networks): they are penetrating many domains, they are changing habits, they make the people more and more autonomous; education is of course immediatly impacted (though much resistance from teachers);

- competences issues considered as the way to move beyond the traditional approaches of defining jobs and skills : outcomes of an educational process are becoming more important than the way how to achieve them; evaluation and recognition of real competences are in the heart of many international debates;

- sustainability or sustainable development is also a new key factor, especially when considering the evolution of engineers activities and education; sustainability means thinking and acting with a long term vision, with an integrated multidisciplinary approach, with a global analysis of what happens.

One could also mention the emphasis put on ethics, the development of biosciences and biotechnologies, the strengthening of legal or juridical constraints, and – we don't forget it - the rapid development of terrorism … which can oblige engineers and engineering educators to have another look at their job, at their career and at their professional and citizen behaviour.

In Europe, specific issues can be mentionned which also lead to more flexibility and mobility:

- the enlargement of the European Union, with the participation of countries from the old East Block;

- the Euro currency that makes easier the comparison between prices (but creates also new problems);

- the specicity of the various National policies which makes difficult the evolution towards global and harmonized perspectives.

Looking at engineering education more precisely , we can point out the crucial issue of non-attractiveness of studies in that field : will the pipe-line be correctly fulfilled in the future or do we have to look at new ways or resources for the recruitment of engineering students?

For all these reasons, one has to invent new ways for educating and training engineers, with the crucial aim to make them much more flexible and mobile.

4 - The European perspective for more global mobility in Higher Education : the Bologna Process and its impact on Engineering education

For long time, Europe did not exist as such and was just a juxtaposition of Nations jalous of their autonomy. Everything was and is complex in Europe due the existence of a huge diversity (on very few distances) of policies and practices. This is really true in the field of Higher Education and, for long time, the “intra-European” mobility was quasi impossible or, if not, rare. During the 70's (and thanks to a new European common policy), one started to promote the mobility of students and staffs. But despite the true success of many initiatives in that field, one has to recognize, at the turn of the century, that the intra-European mobility of people remains low. In a more and more international world, the European system of Higher Education seems to be not able to attract students, staffs and researchers from other parts of the world. There is also a lack of global visibility and ligibility of the European system.

For these reasons, National Ministers of Higher Education from various countries decided to build a new global, common, policy which started in 1998 with the Sorbonne Declaration and in 1999 with the Bologna Declaration. The main goal of this policy is to prepare the convergence, in 2010, towards what was called an European Higher Education Area.

One has to point out here the fact that the choosen method is very original and clever. Politicians just define the asymptote line and the goal and put emphasis on some key general issues (compatibility, recognition, legibility…) but do not define everything in details at the European level. It is up to the various countries to make appropriate decisions for the adoption of the agreed common schemes and it is up to the various stake-holders (Universities, professions,…) to set up the detailed programmes, tools and rules. Every two years, Ministers meet in order to evaluate the progresses and to make decisions for the next steps. In other words, much flexibility on the one hand, and a clear vision and strong determination in terms of where to go and how to go on the other hand.

One has here to add that the convergence towards an European Higher Education Area does not mean “uniformisation”. On the contrary, one recognizes the importance of the diversity of systems and solutions and one considers that such a richness should not be destroyed by too normative decisions. What has to be done is to define and accept a minimum of common rules that make the diverse National systems more compatible. And at the end of the process, mobility of people as well as ideas will become easier.

The main component of the Bologna Process consists in setting up a unique scheme of articulated degrees in Higher Education : the 3-5-8 scheme. A first degree (Bachelor) after around three years of studies would be followed by a two years period with a Master degree; then a PhD could be obtained after three postgraduated studies. This common scheme could seem not very new and original, but taking into account the diversity of National solutions, it is true that the decision appears quite revolutionary. The various countries are now trying to adapt their National system to the common scheme (of course with many differences in the way to solve the problem). For Engineering Education, there are no serious difficulties except that the existence of two types of engineers (production engineers with a short education and scientific engineers with a longer education) creates some specific problems.

Besides the 3-5-8 scheme, the Bologna Process focusses on two other tools :

- the Diploma Supplement consisting in a document which provides necessary details about the studies in a given country, in a given institution for facilitating the mobility of people;

- the ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) defining a set of common rules for the ”measurement” of educational modules in terms of length and load; each study course or programme should be designed as a set of modules, each of them corresponding to a certain number of ECTS Credits; again a solution for facilitating the mobility of students during their studies.

Another important issue of the Bologna Process consists in trying to harmonize quality assessment procedures in Higher Education and also in defining common rules for the accreditation of study programmes. But in that domain, the solution consisting in creating a unique European body or agency for accreditation is unanimously rejected. For Engineering Education, efforts were made during the 5 last years in order to solve the problem : creation of an Observatory ”OESOPE” in 2000, then in 2005 a European Project EUR-ACE for setting up an European System for Accreditation of Engineering education. Progresses in that field are slow but real and one can hope to deliver the first European accreditations in 2006 (based on a set of common rules shared by the various National accrediting bodies).

Many other aspects of the Bologna Process could be mentionned here (competences evaluation and recognition, life long learning, development of an European Reasearch Area). But what is important to say about the Bologna Process is it certainly forced governments, administrations, academic institutions, professions, employers… to re-think and re-define together the traditional approaches in the field of Higher Education. Everybody agrees that it is an important step towards a more flexible and legible educational system, with at last a potential increased mobility of people.

Last but not least, this European effort for convergence, harmonization, legibility is viewed with much interest by other Non-European countries which are also working on reforms of their Higher Education policies. The tools set up in the context of the Bologna Process could also be adapted and used in other continents, especially in the field of engineering education.

5 - Towards a global, integrated and “postmodern” mobility of engineers and engineering students

In a post-modern age characterized by a more global economy and by the emergence of an information and knowledge era, it is no more possible to think at education and especially engineering education using the same concepts than those developed and used during the 50-100 last years. Mobility is becoming a key word, a key concept. It is often associated with adaptability, flexibility, reactivity, interactivity, fugacity. Living and moving in instable environments are also becoming a reality for many people, among them engineers and obviously young engineers and engineering students. We have now to help the young generation to face this new situation with positive answers.

Mobility does not mean, as perhaps we considered it during the 70's, and 80's that everybody will move, will work in other countries or continents. This is no more necessary for many of us, thanks to the digital and network revolution. Mobility is becoming more and more “virtual”, people working and acting locally but thinking globally, internationally. In other words, stimulating the the mobility of the minds is certainly the key issue for the educational programmes and policies in the future.

In concrete words, that means :

- adopting rules and tools allowing the international comparisons between courses, programmes, degres at international level as well as the recognition of studies and competencies;

- defining more precisely outcomes of educational programmes, focussing more on competencies than on loads in terms of number of hours of study;

- introducing much more diversity in the design of the courses, integrating more “foreign” inputs and perspectives, combining elements from various origins,…;

- putting more emphasis on transversal issues (sustainability for instance), inter – or transdisciplinary learning activities;

- requiring the learning and the practice of several foreign languages, introducing intercultural perspectives even in very scientific and technical subjects, inviting more foreign experts and teachers to take part in local educational courses;

- using systematically on-line and digitized resources, at world-wide level, integrated in the normal courses; making students able to benefit from the digital environment;

- stimulating works on joint projects , associating different universities and industry (learning from outside the walls);

- encouraging students to spend a substantial part of their studies in foreign environment but recognizing and integrating the outcomes of these experiences for their "local" degree;

- using life long learning (cointinuing education) in the aim to develop skills and competencies for working in a more global world and for becoming more mobile.

It is not possible to define here a detailed programme or agenda. However, it is important and urgent to open the debate on what could be called a global, integrated and “postmodern” mobility of engineers and engineering students with consequences on engineering education.

Two issues of the European Journal of Engineering Education are devoted in 2006 to globalisation and to mobility. This is an obvious sign that it is time now to debate and to invent new ways for engineering education in the next decade.