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Interview of Prof. Franco Bernelli Zazzera on European Aviation Engineering Education and Accreditation

Prof. Franco Bernelli Zazzera, Chairman of PEGASUS and Head of Dept. of Aerospace Science and Technology - Politecnico di Milano, provides an interview on the quality of the current aviation engineering education in Europe. Further to that, he expresses his views on the usefulness of creating an integrated Europe-wide aviation system by harmonizing the content of the curricula for aviation engineers, as well as he comments on the utility of establishing a common European accreditation system.

Q1: In your capacity of chairman of the PEGASUS network (i.e. Partnership of a European Group of Aeronautics and Space Universities), could you tell us a few words about this initiative, including its main goals and objectives?


R1: The PEGASUS network was founded in 1988 in Toulouse, as a network of excellence in aerospace engineering, based on mutual appreciation and co-operation. Initially it included 20 main European higher education institutions in Aerospace Engineering, spread over 8 different European countries. After a consolidation phase limited to the Founding Partners, PEGASUS decided to open to new applicants within Europe. This policy went concrete in 2003, when a set of admission criteria based on qualitative standards was approved. PEGASUS is open to all EU institutions providing a sufficiently qualified education in aerospace engineering (e.g.: BAC+5 curricula with a balanced blend of subjects, education combined with research...). Today, the PEGASUS network counts on 25 Universities from 10 EU countries. In addition, 4 non-EU Universities participate as Associate Partners.

PEGASUS aims to offer itself as the European portal for higher education services in aerospace, being recognised as the most efficient channel to get university inputs at the integrated EU level. More in detail, the network's goals are the following:

  • Contribute to the development of a quality system for the European higher education in Aerospace Engineering.
  •  Improve educational process and curricula to specifically serve the needs of the aerospace industry.
  •  Show similarities and differences of European curricula to the aerospace world.
  • Co-operate with other groups and networks to fulfil the EU policy lines in higher education.
  •  Increase co-operation between partners and industry as well as national and European research agencies.
  • Contribute to attract non-European students and engineers through competitive curricula and continuing educational services.


Q2: How would you evaluate the quality of the existing aviation engineering education in Europe? What are its main advantages and main drawbacks?


R2: Europe has successfully managed, during the past decades, to ensure a world-leading position in the global civil Aeronautics and Air Transport market. A substantial portion of this accomplishment should be attributed to the excellently-trained human potential ensured through a number of world class European Universities offering aeronautics education. Even though European Universities do not always score high in the University rankings, the education offered is on average of good level and in particular European Universities give great importance to the basic scientific and technical education, which is the key for a life-long career in a rapidly changing job market. Another important asset of the EU higher education is the diversity in the cultural background where technical education is provided. Despite common scientific and technical background, the cultural diversity represents a richness that the employers can exploit. If I have to indicate the drawbacks of the EU education, I would mention some excess of conservatism in the provision of new and emerging subjects and localism in the implementation of new schemes to better adhere to a common EU policy. The Bologna scheme of higher education is far from being implemented in a common way across the EU, even if achievements in the mutual recognition of credits and subjects across the EU are remarkable and currently exploited by our students for their own benefit.


Q3: Based on your significant experience and expertise in the field of Education, what changes do you believe should take place to the currently offered education of aviation engineers, in order to meet the evolving needs of both the European Aeronautics and Air Transport sectors?


R3: As I said earlier, I sincerely think that the general structure of the EU education in the Aeronautics and Air Transport sectors is good in terms of technical and scientific content. We should now concentrate our efforts in assuring that our graduates have, in addition to the technical skills, also those professional skills that up to now have been considered less important, such as foreign language proficiency, international attitude, teamwork and communication skills. These qualities are now fundamental even in the most technical disciplines, since all important aviation-related projects are international. According to some major EU player in the sector, lack of professional skills is one of the most common reasons for not recruiting the graduates. Another extremely important point to consider is the motivation of the graduates to enter the aviation job market. Since graduates are highly skilled, they are also appealing for other sectors, where they might have better career opportunities. This brain-drain must be avoided; otherwise in the near future we could experience lack of graduates for the aviation sector, regardless of the evolution of the needs of the sector.


Q4: What, in your opinion, would be the usefulness and ultimate benefits of creating an integrated Europe-wide aviation system, by harmonizing the content of the curricula for aviation engineers?


R4: I believe that curricula harmonization in terms of content is a dangerous action and must be promoted and implemented with extreme care. We should focus on harmonizing the fundamental disciplines that are the basis of the modern aerospace engineer, but we must absolutely refrain from harmonizing the specialised subjects. The diversity of the specialised content of curricula is a richness for Europe, and the mix of competences that graduates can get from intra-EU mobility programs is a great added value and a richness for the EU industry. What I think should be stimulated is the harmonization of the structure of the curricula, to facilitate student mobility and, why not, also teaching staff mobility. If this harmonization includes also some form of standard for quality and accreditation, as well as measures to ensure excellent relations and cooperation of academia, industry and research establishments, then Europe could really play a prominent role worldwide in the aerospace higher education.


Q5: Currently, there is no commonly accepted accreditation system applied in the European Academia. Understandably, it may still take a long time to reach a European education accreditation system that would have a legal status. It is highly recommended, nonetheless, to implement a voluntary accreditation system for aeronautical education recognizing the diversity of the national education systems. Which do you believe would be the utility of applying such an accreditation system in Europe? What, in your opinion, should be its main attributes?


R5: The recommendation to implement a voluntary accreditation system for aeronautical education has been on the table since year 2006, but no structured action at the EU level has been planned so far. PEGASUS is strongly committed to the issue, and inside the network we have a dedicated working group that is in charge of defining the main attributes of the sectorial accreditation of aerospace studies. Our view is that the definition and application of such an accreditation system would significantly increase the students' confidence and skills, enhance their mobility across Europe, as well as allow for better exploiting the potential of European Aeronautical engineers. I think that aerospace specific accreditation criteria should complement the existing European, national or regional accreditation systems for engineering education. Building on existing accreditation criteria and mechanisms and being, as much as possible, compatible with existing national processes, avoids duplication of administrative efforts on the University side. The criteria should essentially be designed in such a way to show the compatibility of the learning outcomes offered by the degrees and the employability of the graduates. The criteria should also allow a sort of classification of the skills according to their relevance for the job market, allowing for a staged accreditation system, thereby gradually enhancing the quality level of the higher education degrees.


Q6: How do you think could such a common accreditation system be applied in European countries that do, on the one hand, feature high-quality Universities but, on the other hand, are less developed in Aeronautics?


R6: The main goal of a future sectorial accreditation system should be to show the compatibility of the learning outcomes offered by the degrees and the employability of the graduates. Since the aerospace job market is diversified and needs different technical profiles, high-quality Universities offering education that is not core-aerospace could in any case benefit from such accreditation, provided their graduates can be employed with profit by the aerospace industry. In addition, having a clear picture of the requirements can be of great help for those Universities that want to develop or improve their aerospace degrees, whatever the starting point is.


Q7: It has been realized during the recent years that the next generation of Europeans does not consider a potential Aeronautics related career interesting nor fascinating. In this context, could you suggest a few potential measures and actions that could be implemented in order to attract more young people (of both genders) to studies leading to aviation professions?


R7: Both issues, the attraction of the younger generation and the gender issue, are societal more that University problems, that must be addressed by involving at least high schools, if not even junior schools. It is a given fact that the success rate of female and male students in technical studies is the same, if not higher for female, so the problem is to get women to register for higher technical studies. It is also a fact that many aerospace graduates opt for a career in different sectors, assuming that the career prospects in the aerospace sector are poor. We then need to show to the younger generation that both women and men can have great careers in aviation, and create e better awareness of what are the career options. I am pretty sure that our graduates do not have the perception of how a technical career can be rewarding, for a variety of motivations. One further point is that today the aerospace sector is seen as a mature sector, there is not much emphasis on its new achievements. We should start again to communicate to the society what are the latest achievements, why they are important and why we could not imagine our daily life without a well-developed aerospace industry.

Date posted: July 8, 2014, 2:14 pm

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