If your lecturer spends more time with private firms than with you, should you a) Complain, b) Be glad they’re keeping up with the latest thinking, or c) Get them to wangle you a job?

You make the 30-minute bus trip across town, run frantically through the campus, only to find a note pinned to the lecture room door announcing that your seminar is cancelled. You suspect your course director is off on a private assignment, hawking his brain power to the highest bidder from industry while you’re struggling with your coursework and desperately need a chat about what modules to take next year.

Cancelled classes and absent tutors are a common complaint from construction students, particularly as they’re now paying up to £3,000 in tuition fees a year. But frustrating though it may be, the chances are that you’ll get a far better education from academics who are actively involved in industry. As Will Hughes, head of the School of Construction Management and Engineering at Reading University, says: “The very close symbiosis between industry and teaching must be maintained, otherwise academics just recycle old knowledge, teaching the same lesson for 15 or 20 years.”

Indeed, your university’s links to potential employers might be one of the most important factors in your early career – as long as you know how to turn them to your advantage.

Oliver Firth completed his civil engineering degree at Imperial College London in 2003 and is now working as an assistant engineer at Taylor Woodrow. “During my university days I was probably quite frustrated and it was easy to feel unimportant and demoralised at times,” he says. “But I think students must appreciate the bigger picture – the achievements and reputation of the university reflect on them and go a long way to helping them find work.”

“There’s nothing worse than sitting in a lecture thinking, ‘Does this guy know what he’s talking about?’,” agrees Tom Merry, a colleague who graduated from Loughborough University with a degree in architectural engineering and design management in 2004, and also now works for Taywood as an assistant design manager. “With those who still worked in the industry, you felt that they knew what they were doing and you had more respect for them. We’d be learning the theory of a subject and then they would bring real life experience that related.”

There’s nothing worse than sitting in a lecture thinking, ‘Does this guy know what he’s talking about?’

Tom merry, Taylor woodrow

So if you’re looking at prospective universities, it’s worth asking what links staff have. The status of a course, to some extent, depends on the relationships academic departments forge with private companies. Big companies may turn up at recruitment fairs at 30 universities, sponsor lecturers and students’ work at five, but invest heavily in only one or two. Building’s table, overleaf, shows the industry’s connections with some of the highest rated civil engineering, architecture and built environment courses.

Maintaining standards

The Quality Assurance Agency is the organisation that safeguards the quality of higher education, but it says there are no regulations on how many hours lecturers must spend with their students so targets are set by individual institutions. At Reading, for example, undergraduates receive only a quarter of lecturers’ time – postgrads also get a quarter, with outside research taking the lion’s share.

Without help from outside companies, universities often wouldn’t be able to afford to do research. Lecturers oversee collaborative projects, and private firms and research bodies, such as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) put up the funding for equipment and extra research staff. “It’s a mutually beneficial situation,” says Huw Jenkins, commercial manager of the Centre for Research in the Built Environment at Cardiff University. “Students benefit from the feedback from these activities into teaching and the extra support staff, the companies gain insight into how their products can be improved.”

Jenkins says that “pure” research, funded by the research councils and carried out by the universities, is still the norm, but it is becoming more common for research projects to include collaboration with commercial partners. ”The projects often wouldn’t happen without this help,” he says.

I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the extent to which the courses are shaped by what our company needs

Brian Fitzgerald, Atkins

Salford University’s School of the Built Environment, for example, is working on a £10.5m project over five years along with private companies, government departments and the EPSRC. This is looking at improving the built environment facilities in healthcare. As a result, the department has developed relationships that will last long after the project has finished. This means that it can look forward to more visiting lecturers, more student sponsorships and more placements, as well as technical help with coursework, up-to-date input into the curriculum and real-life examples to back up the theory – all of which will open doors for students when they graduate.

Those students who are on the ball make the most of every opportunity. “A friend of one of my lecturers came in and gave us a talk,” recalls Merry. “I went and spoke to him afterwards and ended up with a work placement for Arup Associates.”

Just as universities contribute knowledge to industry, so employers can influence courses – often, when it comes to recruiting, they’ll favour graduates from universities they know. “They know the graduates will meet their needs,” says Sue Hobbs, director of learning and skills for Constructing Excellence.

Course syllabuses are often the result of collaboration between universities and employers. Many departments have a member of academic staff, known as a chair, who is funded by a firm and who represents that company and addresses its requirements. “Engaging in the curriculum helps us to work alongside academia as they look at things that are important to us and our future,” says Brian Fitzgerald, director of human resources development at Atkins, the parent of Faithful + Gould, which recently invested £700,000 over five years in the civil engineering department at Greenwich University. He does, however, emphasise that engineering courses must cover the same basic elements as those offered by other institutions: “I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the extent to which the courses are shaped by what Faithful + Gould needs.”

And don’t worry – other employers won’t necessarily be put off. After all, hiring you is an easy way to get inside information on their competitors ...

Making the most of your university’s links

  • Don’t let guest speakers leave without having a word. Collar them at the end of their session and ask them about the possibility of a work placement, take down their details and make contact within the next few days.
  • Ask for advice. If you need help with the technical details of a project or dissertation contact someone from the companies your university is in contact with. Ring them up and name-drop, or ask your lecturers to put a word in on your behalf.
  • Forge your own relationships. Do as the civil engineering students at Imperial College did – form a society that arranges lunchtime talks by representatives of industry. It’s a good way to show that you are ultra-motivated.
  • Make yourself indispensible. While you’re on placements take every opportunity to contribute technically, but also show that you can communicate and work well within a team.
  • Don’t get caught in a university bubble. If you are sponsored, don’t lose touch with the firm that is sponsoring you. Go to company events in order to learn the broader aspects of the way it works and arrange regular meetings with your company mentor.

  • The rules: What you need to know about your lecturers’ private work

    For the lecturers themselves, taking on outside work is a welcome way to supplement their meagre academic salaries – according to the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), the full-time academic staff earn an average of £43,041 a year, far less than they could make working for a private sector firm. Universities are struggling to recruit lecturers and so they’re loath to cut off a much-needed employment incentive. “Those individuals who do their own work at evenings and weekends can earn a reasonable sum, enough to bring them up to what they would be earning if they were still out in industry,” says Mel Lees, head of the school of the built environment at Salford University.

    Rules on outside work vary between institutions. At the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, for example, lecturers are allowed no more than 20 days of consultancy a year. “That is quite closely monitored,” says the school’s head, Professor Iain Borden.
    Other universities don’t allow private consultancy at all, forcing lecturers to sign exclusivity clauses. “Private consultancy gives mixed messages and confuses everybody,” says Reading University’s Hughes. “Those who have their own businesses often get a full-time university salary for doing a part-time job.” He adds that the allocation of his lecturers’ time and effort is directly linked to the university’s income. Students’ fees must not be used to pay for lecturers’ outside work, and research grants awarded by private companies cannot be spent on teaching.

    Lees says that academics’ work within the industry, whatever their institution’s rules, should never be used as an excuse for absenteeism or bad organisation. Students who have had their classes cancelled, or find their tutors constantly difficult to track down, should tell their department heads. “We had a case where students complained that one of the professors was going to a conference in China, and therefore wouldn’t be there for lectures and tutorials. We agreed to provide a teaching assistant to cover his absence, and they realised he would bring what he had learned back to them,” he says.