University Challenge: Part II

Alex Hawkes investigates the UK Ministry of Defence's university sponsorship scheme for technical officers. The second feature exploring military innovation in the university sector focuses on the scheme at the University of Southampton.


Recruitment has been and probably always will remain a key challenge to the military sector. Unlike other industries, the military cannot work around yearly recruitment fluctuations and with this in mind university sponsorship programmes have taken on an increasingly important role in the UK.

The Defence Technical Undergraduate Scheme (DTUS) was created in 2001 as a solution to the difficulties surrounding the recruitment of engineering and technical officers for the Royal Navy, British Army, Royal Air Force and Ministry of Defence (MoD) civil service. Since then a total of six universities have been established under the scheme in order to ensure the MoD has a steady stream of budding new technical officer talent being blooded through to fulfil future requirements. The other DTUS universities are Loughborough, Newcastle, Birmingham, Aston and Northumbria.

The University of Southampton has a rich tradition of training navy engineering officers, which in recent years has expanded to include both students and in-service officers of the army, and students of the RAF and the Defence Engineering and Science Group (DESG). To support its present day DTUS status, a locally based Quadra-service military support unit called Thunderer squadron provides military-style exercise. Similar units also exist in Birmingham (Taurus squadron), Loughborough (Typhoon squadron) and Newcastle (Trojan squadron).

The present commanding officer of Southampton's DTUS programme is Commander Brett Burlingham of the Royal Navy, who explains the vital supporting role offered to DTUS students throughout their academic years.

"The undergraduate education and degree training is provided by the university staff, but DTUS influences the degree choices and project work of its students. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement based on a simple memorandum of understanding (MoU) that encompasses strong support from the highest levels of university management right down to faculty support staff. The students receive a £4,000 bursary each year and an additional £1,500 in training pay for participating in military-related activities that are on offer alongside their academic studies," he says.

"The DTUS students then go on to join one of the four technical corps of the army – i.e. Royal Corps of Signals, Royal Logistics Corps, Corps of Royal Engineers and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. They can also take routes into all the engineering branches of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy as well as becoming MoD civil servant engineers and technicians with the DESG."

Although some students enter DTUS from school having first passed their service-specific selection boards during A-level studies, the majority of students (about 90%) enrolling on the programme come directly from Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College. The Leicestershire purpose-built learning institute is the very first stage of the recruitment pipeline – with students as young as 15 boarding at the facility.

"The University of Southampton has a rich tradition of training navy engineering officers."

"It is a very early age to assess officer qualities and engineering ability as the students have two years at Welbeck followed by three years at university before they actually start initial officer training," Burlingham says.

"It is obviously therefore a challenge to maintain their interest and work ethic throughout this five-year pipeline. The pressure is there as it is a substantial investment for the military – with about 900 future officers at any one time across the nationwide programme."

Mentoring DTUS students for the future

To ensure students live up to their future potential, a support team of six including Commander Burlingham is employed to mentor Southampton University's 150 DTUS students. While the staff monitor the academic development of each student a sharp focus is also kept on preparing them for future initial officer training and their subsequent military careers.

"Our mission is to educate, develop and prepare our students in order to ensure they realise their future responsibilities and understand core military values. This of course means there is a training element to their university years – there is no point in having the students turn up to the initial officer training if they are medically, physically or mentally unprepared for the challenges ahead," Burlingham says.

"We give practical guidance and instructions to ensure they are ready. Indeed we see leadership development at DTUS as a risk-reduction measure that increases the chances of success on the very demanding initial officer training courses at Sandhurst, Cranwell and Dartmouth."

The Thunderer squadron, which was set up purposely to support DTUS students at Southampton University, engages in various military exercises each semester. Several of these are combined with the other squadrons across the country. Students involved in the unit begin as an exercising troop but as the individual's seniority rises within the squadron, this could evolve to teaching junior members or becoming a section commander.

An active approach to military recruitment

Adventurous training (AT) also plays a key role in all the DTUS units, placing an emphasis on developing leadership qualities through a range of challenging outdoor pursuits and sports. "These test students' endurance capabilities and take them out of their comfort zone. In the process the students are able to gain leader qualifications, such as mountaineering and sailing, which will stand them in good stead in their future careers," says Burlingham.

Yet the DTUS programme is very careful not to overlap with the real officer training exercises that the students will subsequently go on to do. Southampton University also shares an air squadron, OTC and Royal Naval unit with recruits from Bournemouth, Portsmouth, Southampton Solent and Winchester Universities. But, even with the obvious overlap between these entities, the Thunderer squadron remains a separate body.

"DTUS influences the degree choices and project work of its students."

"The full plethora of military organisations is represented at Southampton, but they are not recruiting organisations. They are there to influence students who may or may not go on to join the military – to give them a flavour for what the services do and the traditions and values they uphold," Burlingham says.

In terms of recruiting future students to the DTUS programme, Burlingham has discovered the system speaks for itself:

"Our students help recruit for us. Each year without exception, we gain additional students through word of mouth. The individuals on the courses at DTUS universities are the best recruiters of all as they can tell their fellow engineering students what they are doing now and how it benefits them. Of course they still have to pass their chosen service officer selection process before they can join in the fun," he says.