Engineering Education in the United Kingdom and Continental

By Rodriguez, Moises-Enrique | Industrial Management, March/April 1992 | Go to article overview
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Engineering Education in the United Kingdom and Continental

Rodriguez, Moises-Enrique, Industrial Management

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 equivalences, 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.


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 systems 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 obtain 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 of 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 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.

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