Enhancing Aviation Education Through Appropriate Accreditation

The extraordinary growth in the aviation industry is now uponus and this trend is forecast to continue until at least 2037.  While this growth will provide exceptional opportunities, it will also bring challenges for the industry and the education and training organizations that are tied to it.  Though the challenge to the industry is the inability to meet the staffing needs of the industry, the opportunities are directly linked as aviation education and training institutions gear up for the influx of students who will meet these needs.  

Challenges to the aviation education system are directly linked to the rapid expansion of the numbers of students, the numbers of programmes offered, and the quality of theseprogrammes. It is essential that the quality of the graduates from universities are at the highest possible level.

Though many papers have looked at how universities developand the role they play in aviation education and training, it is useful to review the steps universities must take

to ensure that graduates are ready to take on roles within the industry. By providing a base level for graduate skills in the aviation industry, a sensible approach for enhancing the outputs from the aviation education system can then be introduced.  

Universities are governed very differently in many different Nations.  For example, in Australia each university is established by its own Act of State Parliament and is a stand-alone self-accrediting organization. They are allowed to operate as a university by the federal government using federal government funding, and managed by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. This is acomplicated mix of reporting lines and financial lineage.  

It is not unusual in the education sector for Nations to have their own rules and regulations that universities must comply with in order to operate.  This system has grown organically, with the education systems of most Nations developed to provide for the citizens of that particular Country.  The concept of large-scale international education is rather new. Even though the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) endeavours to bring systems closer together, a unified approach is many years away (if ever). There are currently very limited (if any) universal qualifications that are automatically accepted everywhere in the world in any sphere of education, with teaching, dentistry and medicine, as just a few examples of where no consensus exists.

With the exceptionally diverse nature of education in mind, it is obvious that it is not feasible to impose an international accreditation system on universities. Such a system may well contravene or contradict the very requirements, history andexperiences that the State, under which the university is established, dictates.  

It is essential that we do not try to follow a path of accreditation where universities must meet a set of input criteria. It would be pointless to look at the length of a degree, the types of academic courses that are required for students to graduate, and the qualifications of the staff. To try to enforce such requirements would be disruptive, creating international friction and unsettling the existing industry/provider relationships, without ultimately achieving anything for the industry.  A better approach would be to establish dialogue about what the outputs from our education institutions should be, and then allow each institution to deliver those outputs in ways that are appropriate for them.

The aviation education system must ensure the quality of its graduates.  To this end, and in the interests of space and time,we will look at the essential outputs for a degree for pilots as an example (the same logic can be applied to other areas of the industry). 

There is no doubt that a graduate with a pilot degree must be a professional pilot who holds a licence (CPL/MPL) that allows him/her to receive compensation for operating an aircraft. Most pilot degrees are aimed at providing “airline” pilots, so pilots graduating from a university would have to have the skills, attitudes and knowledge required to be an airline pilot.   The airline will be seeking graduates who can, as rapidly as possible, be further trained as a first or second officer in a multi-crew aircraft, and who have the potential for command in the (potentially not too distant) future.  Thus the “output” from an institution that ensures that these skills, attitudes and knowledge are taught, demonstrated, practiced and assessed at a level that airlines are expecting, would be recognized as providing an appropriate degree, without the need forassessing what the inputs were to achieve that level of expertise.

Non-technical skills development is a key output area that universities need to develop in their students.  The non-technical skills for a pilot that are described in ICAO’sManual of Evidence-based Training include communication, leadership and teamwork, problem solving and decision making, situation awareness, and workload management. These are all high level executive functions that are mostly operationalized through the pre-frontal cortex of the human brain.  

Interestingly, this area of the brain is the last area to develop, with final development occurring between 18-25 years of age.  While competencies may be affected by genetic components and family experiences, they are also affected by individual experiences, community, friends and the general environment that the individual occupies and engages with.  The brain creates pathways and links between neurons to cement these executive functions and it prunes neurons that are not used.  

To some extent, like muscle memory, practicing executive functions and being exposed to well-planned positive reinforcement of these core non-technical skills, creates and strengthens neuronal pathways in the pre-frontal cortex that govern the non-technical skills. Concomitantly, by reducing the level of negative experiences and poor behaviour/attitudes/skills these “negative” skills will be pruned and removed as pathways.  This, in effect, hard-wires the individual to perform at a higher level and produce better results with respect to the non-technical skills required to perform as an airline pilot.

This age range (18-25 years) is the time when young adults are attending university and taking up their first jobs.  It is essential then that universities and industry work together to ensure that students and new employees are exposed to positive influences, positive experiences, and that they practice executive level functions in appropriate contexts.  Skills must be taught, demonstrated, practiced and assessed regularly.  This requires that aviation industry employers and universities work closely together to provide the type of professional development and mentoring that young adults require to become, and remain, successful in their careers.   

By introducing these kinds of development programmes both within the curriculum, and as extracurricular activities, the pool of capable young people graduating from universityprogrammes will increase, as will the overall quality of the graduates and new employees.  Improved satisfaction from the academic faculty and industry mentors would rise as their satisfaction with student performance, the effort of new employees, and the general positive impact that overall improved performance naturally brings.

The “academic” component of the degree is vitally important and addresses the knowledge requirements for the industry,and the physical skills required to operate the aircraft. This is akin to the way dentists and surgeons are educated and trained.  The academic components of the degrees may differ widely across the world, but the attitudes expected of employees and the non-technical skills may, or may not, be present in a university scenario.  The presence or absence of a formal or informal process that manages the professional development of people in this age group at university, is essential for their future careers, and indeed plays a role in resilience and overall happiness. It may also have an effect on mental health.

Close relationships with industry, and specifically the organizations most likely to employ a particular university’s graduate, are essential to enhancing the industry though university education.  This way employers play a role in the design and offering of the programme and ensure that it is relevant for the context in which graduates will be initially employed.  However, it is also important that the international context is understood and addressed.  This remains important as the strong potential exists where future employment may well be at an international locale.  

While the academic components of the degree may vary in different parts of the globe, the area that is agreed upon in the international context includes ICAO pilot competencies (andthe non-technical skills).  This reiterates that these skills must make up an essential component of a degree that results in graduating pilots.  Young people are attending university at a critical time in their physiological development. Well-designed programmes ensure that their physiological and psychological development is understood, and that programme designs make the most of the ability to help students develop the skills that will hold them in good stead in the industry, and in life in general.  

The way to ensure effective and quality aviation education programmes at university is through strong industry relationships and the development of a professional development/mentoring scheme which is either intra-, co- or extra-curricular in design but which teaches, demonstrates, practices and assesses the non-technical skills required to work in the aviation industry.  


Paul Bates, Professor,and Executive Chairman IATEO