Engineering Students Worried About Collusion

Survey Shows Students Feel Unprepared for Ethical Conflicts

Concordia’s Engineering and Visual Arts Building. A recent survey shows that Quebec’s future engineers are worried about allegations of collusion in the construction industry. Graphic Clement Liu

The allegations of collusion and corruption in the construction industry that have rocked Quebec politics since the Charbonneau Commission began are also affecting the outlooks of the province’s engineering students.

A recent survey conducted by the Québec confederation for engineering student outreach shows that 75 per cent of Quebec engineering students are concerned about collusion, and 96 per cent believe that collusion has hurt the reputation of their future profession.

“[The survey] gave some interesting results,” said Mathieu Boutin-Delisle, QCESO’s VP academic, in an interview with The Link.

“People often say that students aren’t aware of what’s happening [but] we saw that students feel concerned by the allegations [of collusion]—it’s a good sign that students are interested in this issue.”

Insufficient Ethics

According to the survey, 59 per cent of students think that their engineering ethics courses are not well-adapted to the situation in Quebec, and 45 per cent say their program doesn’t equip them to deal with ethical conflicts once they graduate.

At Concordia, engineering students’ ethical instruction consists of one 1.5-credit class, “Professional Practice and Responsibility” (ENGR 201). According to its course description, 201 deals with professional ethics, the quebec engineers’ Professional Code and the Engineer’s Act.

According to civil engineering student Amir Essaati, ethics has a “minimal” role in Concordia’s engineering curriculum. Essaati also told The Link that ENGR 201 wasn’t often a top priority for students.

“I don’t know how much time students really invest in the class,” he said. “Your technical classes are much more mentally demanding, time demanding.”

Although Essaati has yet to do an internship, he says that ENGR 201’s theoretical approach didn’t prepare him and his classmates to deal with collusion in the workplace.

“I can definitely see how students don’t feel equipped to deal with these complex ethical issues,” he said.

“Though you may have in your mind a framework by which to make an ethical decision, once you contrast that to what your supervisor’s telling you to do, it’s not always clear.”

Mathieu Poirier, also a Concordia civil engineering student, says that although ENGR 201 “pretty much covers all the bases” in terms of laws and regulations, it should be given in a student’s last semester, instead of in first year, so that the material is fresh in students’ minds as they enter the workforce.

“Most of the students tend to forget,” he said. “[Collusion] might happen, and a student who just became a new engineer might not even know he’s doing something wrong”

The QCESO has recommended that Quebec’s engineering deans revamp their curriculums to make ethics more prominent throughout the duration of an engineer’s studies. It also wants students to receive more in-depth instruction about the Professional Code, the Engineer’s Act and Ordre d’ingénieurs du Québec’s regulations, before they begin their internships.

“What we want to do is give students have the tools to respond to situations where they’re experiencing collusion,” said Boutin-Delisle.

“I can definitely see how students don’t feel equipped to deal with these complex ethical issues. Though you may have in your mind a framework by which to make an ethical decision, once you contrast that to what your supervisor’s telling you to do, it’s not always clear.”

—Civil engineering student Amir Essaati

Collusion Not Hidden from Interns

According to the survey, 5 per cent of engineering students have witnessed collusion during an internship—a number that surprised the QCESO.

“We realized that collusion isn’t very hidden,” Boutin-Delisle said.

The role of engineers in collusion was brought to the public’s attention when Montreal municipal engineer Gilles Surprenant testified before the Charbonneau commission, revealing that he had received over $700, 000 in kickbacks from construction firms. Since then, further testimonies have exposed bid-fixing among engineering firms in Laval.

Although none of the students interviewed for this article had seen collusion firsthand during an internship, Arseneau said that he’d heard stories from classmates and colleagues about contractors sharing insider information about bids for contracts, calling the practice “common.”

Engineering’s Reputation

Concordia University Building Engineering Society president Kyle Arseneau said that although collusion does come up in conversation among the students he represents, very few would consider pursuing a career elsewhere because of the issue.

“Out of a hundred people, maybe not even one would come to the radical decision of saying, ‘I don’t want to work in Montreal, I want to go work in Toronto because of the collusion,” he said. “It might come into their choice, but it wouldn’t be the main factor.”

“There’s a lot of work to be done to reassert the prestige of the profession,” said Boutin-Delisle on the issue. “But I don’t think that [collusion] will discourage students from going into engineering.”

The confederation hopes that collusion prevention measures will help improve engineering’s reputation.

The QCESO represents over over 16,000 students and received 1,136 responses to its survey, which was conducted over March and April of this year.

Although the survey was offered to all Quebec engineering students, Concordia, along with McGill, had a response rate of only one per cent. Overall, students with Quebec residency status made up the bulk of the respondents.

The full survey results can be found here.