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11 SEP 2019

Is a university education necessary to be a surveyor?

In recent years, the built environment industries have radically diversified away from “traditional” notions of surveying expertise. Today, surveyors not only need to be specialists in their field, but also generalists. Of course, they still need to master the traditional skills of surveying, but in addition to these core competencies, it is now essential to be more aware of social, political and financial issues, as well as understanding how new technologies such as drones, BIM, GPS or virtual and augmented reality can be used to enhance surveying tasks.

Although most students still aspire to gain a university degree as the basic qualification for starting a career in surveying, I believe apprenticeships and skills-based education can help increase the number of well-rounded, work-experienced candidates joining the surveying profession, who thrive as both specialists and generalists.

Reflecting this, many firms have started to recruit non-degree holders, or establish their own apprenticeship schemes for non-qualified recruits. On the whole, this is very positive, but there is a danger of offering such schemes for the wrong reasons. For example, it would be a waste of potential if non-degree holders are only hired because they are willing to perform the more mundane tasks of surveying, while being paid less than a qualified surveyor might be.

But it’s important that graduates who have a skills-based education are not seen as mere technicians. Eventually, many of them will become professional surveyors, which is why a skills-based education via bespoke institutions can significantly boost the number of work-ready graduates who are attractive to employers.

Apprenticeships as aa route into the built environment profession could play a major role in the future, alongside university degrees

Licence to skill

As a response to a growing demand from students wishing to gain a degree at the starting point of their career, while at the same time training in skills, the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong (THEi) was set up as a self-financed higher education institute in 2012 to train sub-degree holders to degree standard under the Vocational Training Council (VTC).

Underpinning this is the idea that, instead of students using their A-level results as a guide to which university programme they will choose, it is more important for them to consider where their own interest and suitability of talent lies. For example, some students might aspire to acquire new skills, such as in operating drones, or managing CAD and BIM applications. They might become the core skills-performing professionals, while others who are better at problem solving would be more suitable as managerial professionals.

THEi and the VTC were inspired by the Swiss and German models of vocational and professional education and training (VPET). However, the success of this model, especially in Hong Kong, hinges on the acceptance by parents, students and society at large that it’s on a par with traditional university education – albeit with a focus on skills-based knowledge. One way to achieve this cultural change would be to recognise VPET programmes in universities of applied sciences to be on a par with “traditional” universities.

The question is: should skills-based apprenticeships or education at places such as THEi become the predominant starting point for people entering surveying, rather than going from A-levels to university to APC? Perhaps not yet.

What do you think?

Aerial university
Whilst the emergence of apprenticeships will potentially develop a more rounded surveyor, whether or not it should be the primary starting point for a career in the industry is up for debate

If skills-based apprenticeships were to become the “mainstream” way to enter chartered surveying, I’d worry that this could leave surveying at risk of being regarded as inferior to other professions, such as accountancy, law or engineering, which require degrees or postgraduate-level qualifications. Until society and employers start to view skills-based apprenticeships as equivalent to traditional university degrees, in terms of earning and social status, most will still be going from A-levels, to university, to the APC.

Nevertheless, the surveying world is full of different types of problems, which will always require different types of professionals, trained to deal with all sorts of situations. Establishing more institutions that focus on vocational and professional training can only help increase the number of well-rounded young surveyors employed around the world.

Professor Daniel Ho FRICS is associate dean of the Faculty of Design and Environment at the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong

Find out more about the benefits of apprenticeships at

  • This article originally appeared in the Talent issue of Modus (September 2019), under the headline “Time to change course”