Guest blog: Time to Reflect on the Wellbeing of our Engineers

By Jo-Anne Tait – Academic Strategic Lead, School of Engineering, Robert Gordon University

Students’ mental health is a deservedly hot topic in higher education. But is the conversation more difficult when it comes to engineering? Are the challenges greater?

When I am asked about the topic of my PhD I have noticed the responses are interesting. Engineers for the most part look puzzled, and wonder why I might think this is worthy of investigation. Some even show signs of annoyance that this is even a thing. Non-engineers on the other hand, their eyes open wider in fascination and regale me with tales of the (not so positive) habits of the engineers they know.  

I am studying the mental wellbeing of engineering students. I believe there is something wrong with how we approach this topic in engineering education in relation to future engineers. In fact, it appears we don’t really approach it at all.

I was a geologist by trade before I entered engineering academia, teaching drilling engineering students. Nearly 20 years later, I look after the teaching, learning and student experience in a School of Engineering. I see my job as helping the engineers of the future and I take it very seriously.

I realise I am preaching to the converted somewhat but in case anyone isn’t clear, engineers are absolutely vital in addressing global challenges: energy, sustainability, transport, infrastructure, and medication are just a few.

But despite the importance placed on the role of the engineer in our future, the UK has a serious shortage of engineers. This phenomenon is echoed in the U.S., China, South Africa and Germany with reports of demand far outstripping supply. Calls for education reform are growing and there has been an increase in the diversification of engineering education through degree apprenticeships and widening participation activities.

From my seat at the table I am seeing a worrying rise in mental health and wellbeing issues in engineering students. Often by the time I am made aware of a student’s situation it is at or near crisis point rather than earlier, when more support might be possible. I raised my concerns and discovered that, anecdotally, engineering students sought help in far fewer numbers than students of other disciplines. Further reading told me this was not unusual in engineering higher education and so I began to dig further.

Given the mental health and wellbeing of university and college students has been the subject of considerable discussion nationally and internationally it might surprise you to discover that engineering students are not well represented in this literature. It certainly surprised me, given the challenging and competitive nature of engineering degree programmes and the male-skewed gender balance of the discipline.

Men, and young men in particular have a higher risk of suicide and the incidence of schizophrenia in males is reported to be significantly higher than in females. Young adults are at higher risk of developing serious mental illnesses and it has also been reported that female engineering students report even poorer mental wellbeing than their male counterparts. An American institution found that engineering students had a higher prevalence of mental health problems than the general student population, were less likely to use mental health services than students from other disciplines, were “significantly less likely to report suicidal ideation” and there was a “significantly decreased likelihood of seeking help”.

The NUS reported well over half of students reporting mental distress attributed this to heavy workload and coursework deadlines and engineering courses are well-known for heavy workloads and assessment schedules.

So, engineering students are potentially at higher risk of suffering from poor mental wellbeing, and are also less likely to seek assistance than students of other disciplines. To me this points to an unmet need of engineering students and so I decided to undertake a PhD in this area. I chose to focus my efforts on engineering students because I feel that is where I may have most impact, but it is likely the problems I am identifying in students also exist in the engineering profession itself.

 A recent report on masculinity in engineering highlighted over a fifth of respondents reporting having had to take time off work because of mental ill health. Distressingly, the report also notes that nearly a fifth of respondents stated they had lost an engineering colleague to suicide. When asked if they experienced stress, sleeping issues, thoughts on self-harm or being bothered by feeling anxious, depressed, irritable or sad, 77% of participants answered yes.

By investigating the mental wellbeing of engineering students, I am hopeful that we can uncover a unique insight into a population that has been overlooked in mental wellbeing studies and may be at increased risk of mental ill health and poor mental wellbeing.

Given the shortage of engineers in the UK, it is time we looked more closely at the mental wellbeing of our engineers, both current and future. Because, increasingly, more is expected of engineers. They need to be more mentally agile and more able to drive change and innovation than ever before.

For that they need to have skills we don’t always shine a light on so much in university engineering education: resilience, empathy, active listening, self-preservation, conflict resolution and, essentially, metacognition.

I appreciate we are some years away from a UKSPEC review, but one way of encouraging engineers to look after their mental wellbeing is to support metacognition activities more explicitly through the UKSPEC’s section D, to include development of intrapersonal skills. Placing an importance on this at the heart of what it is to be a professional engineer will feed through to AHEP and AQAH requirements and may be a way to support institutions in working towards building a supportive environment for engineering personal development.

Meanwhile, let’s try to normalise conversations about mental health and wellbeing and support our engineering colleagues and friends whenever we can.

And for my part, I will continue to support engineers and engineering students by finishing my PhD and providing some recommendations!

Brexit impact on UK’s engineering education sector: Exploring EU students and staff experiences

The Engineering Professors’ Council and the UCL Centre for Engineering Education are running a research project, funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering, that seeks to address and understand the motivations, experiences and expectations of European citizens in UK’s engineering education context.

This study research aims to explore and substantiate the current and anticipated impact of Brexit’s decision on both European engineering students and staff currently studying and working in the UK.

If you are a non-UK European citizen and would like to take part, please see the academic staff or student calls for participation.

Call for participation: students

Are you a non-UK European citizen?

Are you studying engineering in the UK (undergraduate or postgraduate level)?

The UCL Centre for Engineering Education and the Engineering Professors’ Council are running a research project, funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering, that seeks to address and understand the motivations, experiences and expectations of European citizens in UK’s engineering education context. We would like to hear from you!

We’re looking for non-UK participants to get involved in this project. Interested in participating in a short online interview? It should take no more than 30 – 40 minutes.

Please register here: https://is.gd/EU_EngineeringStudents

You can read more about the project here.

If you need more information, please get in touch with the researcher, Dr Inês Direito, i.direito@ucl.ac.uk

Thank you for considering taking part in this research study.

* Please forward this email to relevant fellow students*

Contact for further information

Dr Inês Direito, PhD, MSc, FHEA

Research Fellow, UCL Centre for Engineering Education

Email: i.direito@ucl.ac.uk

Telephone: +44 (0)20 767 93 153

Torrington Place, room 2.09 Engineering Front Building

London WC1E 7JE

Call for participation: staff

Are you a non-UK European citizen?

Are you an engineering lecturer and/or researcher in a UK higher education institution?

The Engineering Professors’ Council and the UCL Centre for Engineering Education are running a research project, funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering, that seeks to address and understand the motivations, experiences and expectations of European citizens in UK’s engineering education context. We would like to hear from you!

We’re looking for non-UK participants to get involved in this project. Interested in participating in a short online interview? It should take no more than 30 – 40 minutes.

Please register here: https://is.gd/EU_EngineeringAcademics

You can read more about the project here.

We are also looking for students to participate, can you circulate the student call for participation to your students?

If you need more information, please get in touch with the researcher, Dr Inês Direito, i.direito@ucl.ac.uk

Thank you for considering taking part in this research study.

*Please forward this email to relevant colleagues*

Contact for further information:

Dr Inês Direito, PhD, MSc, FHEA

Research Fellow, UCL Centre for Engineering Education

Email: i.direito@ucl.ac.uk

Telephone: +44 (0)20 767 93 153

Torrington Place, room 2.09 Engineering Front Building

London WC1E 7JE

Guest blog: ‘If you were an engineer, what would you do?’

By Dr Susan Scurlock MBE – CEO of Primary Engineer

If you are one of the 125,000+ passengers per day heading through Gatwick South this summer, you may just spot your university’s Leaders Award prototype on the huge hoarding showcase.

Thanks to 49,000 school children aged between 3 and 19, 33 regional funders, three new national funders – Facebook, Network Rail and Gatwick Airport – and 19 university supporters (not forgetting the EPC’s support!) Primary Engineer is delighted to announce its ‘Wall of Fame 19’.

Gatwick Airport has today (August 13th) launched a three-week long exhibition of winners of the Primary Engineer Leaders Award ‘If you were an engineer, what would you do?’. The intention is to profile the university-builds from this and previous years and ask for a popular vote from the £2.6 million+ passengers walking through the terminal during the 3-week exhibition at the busiest time of year.

‘Wall of Fame 19’ showcases 11 inspirational prototypes of inventions designed by pupils from across the country and built by engineering students and technicians from universities in every UK region. Three working prototypes will be displayed – the Bicycle Sucker (built by Kingston University), the SMA Jacket (built by UCLan) and the Flat Pack Wind Turbine (built by Glasgow Caledonian University).

The Primary Engineer Leaders Award – “If you were an engineer, what would you do?” – links both primary and secondary schools with engineering professionals from across the sectors.  The competition promotes engineering to young people, with a 50/50 gender split for entries, and allows them to find the ‘engineer within’ by designing solutions to problems they have identified.

Primary Engineer is a not for profit educational organisation. Its approach brings engineering and engineers into primary and secondary classrooms and curricula; inspiring children, pupils and teachers through continued professional development, whole class projects, and the competition.

Dr. Susan Scurlock, MBE, founder of Primary Engineer said: “This exhibition at one of the most important travel hubs in the UK is testament to the commitment of commercial organisations, schools and universities who are all doing their bit to help pupils tap into their inner engineer. Each year I am astounded by the designs by pupils, some as young as 3, as they identify problems to solve which are important to them and in turn inspire engineers to build their solutions. We started by asking engineers to inspire children and have found that children inspire engineers. Perfect!” 

You don’t need to be passing through Gatwick to vote. The voting page is available at www.leadersaward.com/walloffame19/ and will feature each drawing, and photograph of each invention from this year and, in a separate section an opportunity to vote for previous years’ builds – we are looking to identify 2 winning builds. Please do vote and tweet “I have voted for my favourite design #walloffame19 @leadersaward!”.

New! DATA BLOG: Grade inflation?

Earlier this month, the OfS published a new release of degree classification data, concluding that the growing proportion of the first and upper second class degrees awarded cannot be fully explained by factors linked with degree attainment. Specifically, the new analysis finds that in 2017-18, 13.9 percentage points’ worth of first-class degree attainment is unexplained by changes in the graduate population since 2010-11, an increase of 2.4 percentage points from the unexplained attainment in 2016-17. So we have it – grade inflation.

So, we’ve fished some unfiltered HESA data out of our archives, updated it, and looked at the distributions between first, second and third-class honours in engineering. And it seems that engineering paints a very different (worse?) picture than the sector as a whole. We award a notably higher proportion of firsts and, at a glance, a commensurately lower proportion of 2nd class honours. The proportion of 3rd class honours/pass awarded has come into line with the all subjects over recent years. It varies by engineering discipline, but nowhere is the proportion of firsts lower than for all subjects.

You might think, then, that high-level degree awards in engineering (firsts plus upper-class seconds) were nothing to write home about. But in 2016/17, at 77.3%, the proportion of high-level degree awards in engineering was one percentage point higher than for all subjects (and the difference has fluctuated around the one percent mark for the past ten years).

A simplified index plot, where 1 (the central y axis) represents all subjects, shows the propensity of a first in engineering is consistently greater than for all subjects (where the longer the bar, the greater the over-representation). The over-representation of firsts in engineering has shown a notable reduction over the past ten years and, at 1.4, was at its lowest yet in 2017/18. The overrepresentation of third-class honours in engineering visible from 2007/08 to 2015/15 has now been eliminated. You can see from this analysis that the over-representation of firsts is in fact greater than the combined under-representation of 2:1s and 2:2s.

So, what does this tell us? That the rise in higher degree classifications doesn’t apply to engineering? The number of high-level degrees in engineering has increased from 10,180 in 2007/8 to 18,690 in 2017/8, an increase of 83.6%. Proportionally, this has risen from 62.7% of all degree awards in engineering to 77.3%. That’s just marginally less proportional growth than the 14.9 percentage point difference for all subjects. But we are making progress.

Here’s the rub, who’s to say that rises in high-level degree classifications (which, sector-wide, cannot be explained by the data readily available – not my data) is necessarily a problem per se, or that is signals grade inflation? There are many reasons – not accounted for in the OfS statistical models – for degree outcome uplift, not least the massive expansion of student numbers in the last 20 years (leading to a less socially constrained pool of students); greater awareness of student support needs; the increased cost of higher education to students; more incentivised and focused students; and improved teaching in both schools and universities. Further, there is evidence that market forces; course enrolments; progression rules (e.g. progression from BEng to MEng requires achievement of marks for the first two or three years of study suggesting a minimum 2:1 standard, and therefore likely transfer of the best students away from the BEng); and the marking processes adopted by different subject areas impacts the proportion of upper degrees between subjects.

The evidence of improvement in teaching (and the development of pedagogy in UK universities) is much stronger than the evidence for grade inflation. As a discipline, this is what we must celebrate. Higher education (HE) is the gold standard in the delivery of engineering skills in the UK and has a strong international standing and reputation.

Let’s face it, the assumption that institutions need to account for grade inflation rather than educational improvement is perverse. Instead, let’s talk about and encourage innovation in teaching, learning and assessment, precisely what our New Approaches to Engineering Higher Education initiative (in partnership with the IET) aims to do. Earlier this year we launched six case study examples for each of the six new approaches, evidencing that the required changes can be achieved – are already being achieved – and we now want other institutions who have been inspired to come up with new approaches of their own to showcase their work at a New Approaches conference at the IET in November. More details will be circulated shortly.

Attribution: EPC analysis of HESA Student Qualifiers Full Person Equivalent (FPE) using Heidi Plus Online Analytics service.

Guest blog: Compensation and condonement – incoming rules for accredited degrees

By Catherine Elliott, Engineering Council

The Engineering Council has updated its policy on compensation and condonement[1], which has resulted in new rules being put in place. The key consideration in these rules is to ensure that graduates of accredited engineering degree programmes have met all the learning outcomes specified in the Engineering Council’s Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes (AHEP).

When making decisions about the potential accreditation of a university programme, Professional Engineering Institutions (PEIs) are required to consider the awarding institution’s compensation and condonement policy as part of the assessment.

These rules have been published on the Engineering Council website, with guidance on these changes expected in the coming months, which will provide additional information to enable Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to prepare.

The anticipated timeline to implement these changes is outlined below:

  • The rules should be implemented for new cohorts starting from September 2022.  The rules will only apply to intakes from that date and not to existing students. 
  • From September 2019, HEIs will be required to create a plan ensuring their regulations conform to the new rules by September 2022. Programmes reviewed on visits from September 2022 will not be accredited if the HEI regulations are not up to date with the rules on compensation and condonement.
  • From September 2022, PEIs will check all HEIs have complied as part of their regular visit schedule.

If you have any queries on compensation and condonement, please contact the Engineering Council at accreditation@engc.org.uk


[1] There are no consistent definitions of the terms ‘compensation’ and ‘condonement’ across UK universities, and they are often confused. The Engineering Council therefore adopts a similar definition to that used by QAA and HEA, as follows:

The Engineering Council defines compensation as: “The practice of allowing marginal failure (i.e. not more than 10 percentage points below the nominal pass mark) of one or more modules and awarding credit for them, often on the basis of good overall academic performance.”

The Engineering Council defines condonement as: “The practice of allowing students to fail and not receive credit for one or more modules within a degree programme, yet still qualify for the award of the degree.”

EPC Congress 2019 Bookings

Please read the information below to help you select the correct ticket type.

All tickets include:

  • Monday evening social
  • All sessions and events on Tuesday
  • Congress dinner at Senate House on Tuesday evening
  • Congress programme on Wednesday (ending at 2.00pm).

Accommodation is NOT included. A list of options to suit different budgets is available here.

Early bird booking rates – giving you £50 off the full congress package (or £30 for the already heavily discounted early career staff rate) – end 8th April.

TICKET TYPES

Full Congress: EPC member

Most UK universities with an engineering department or faculty are members of the EPC. To check whether your institution is a member, please click herePartner organisations may also attend Congress at member rates. This is a discounted rate.

Full Congress: EPC non-member

Most UK universities with an engineering department or faculty are members of the EPC. To check whether your institution is a member, please click herePartner organisations may also attend Congress at member rates. If you are not a member, you are still very welcome. Please select this rate.

Full Congress: Early career staff

Any academic staff at EPC member institutions who have been employed in academic roles for no more than five years qualify for this rate. Additionally, there are 10 free spaces available for ECS, a maximum of one free space per university. Apply for your free space here.

Engineering higher education faces multiple threats, according to new landmark report

A worrying convergence of challenges, outlined in a high-profile report published today, is threatening the vital role of higher education in supporting the UK’s engineering sector, a critical part of the country’s economy.

Led by the Royal Academy of Engineering and with significant input from the Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC), Engineering Skills for the Future – the 2013 Perkins review revisited has found key barriers for addressing the annual shortfall of 59,000 engineers and technicians in the UK workforce.

In the context of higher education, the post-18 education funding review, falling research revenues and international student numbers after Brexit, proposals in the Immigration White Paper, and the challenge to diversify the intake of students are all cited as issues that could undermine the supply of essential engineering graduates into the UK labour market.

The report highlights how the whole education system cannot produce enough engineers to support the UK economy, especially with increasing reliance on home-grown talent post-Brexit.

The report, produced by Education for Engineering, an engineering education and skills policy body, makes a raft of recommendations for government including relaxing the rules on how the Apprenticeship Levy may be spent, addressing the shortage of skilled teachers, and ensuring engineering higher education is well resourced and attractive to applicants in the event of changes to student funding.

The 2013 Review of Engineering Skills by Professor John Perkins FREng, commissioned by government, was a landmark report, the first to review engineering education from primary schools to professions. Engineering Skills for the Future – the 2013 Perkins review revisited is an independent report from the engineering profession.  It revisits the challenges highlighted in the original Perkins Review, and sets out a roadmap for government and the engineering community that identifies urgent priorities for action. 

The report specifically recommends that the UK must remain part of international partnerships to continue to attract students from the EU and all over the world and should extend opportunities for graduates to stay and work in the country after their studies. It also emphasises the need for top-up grants for engineering courses in the event of any cuts to tuition fees.

Also relevant to higher education, is the report’s call for an urgent review of post-16 academic education pathways for England. Young people should have the opportunity to study mathematics, science and technology subjects along with arts and humanities up to the age of 18. The report recommends this to encourage more students from a broader range of backgrounds into further and higher engineering education. The current system runs the risk of narrowing education choices and potentially closing the door to technical and creative careers.

Professor John Perkins CBE, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, who led this report, said:

“Engineering is enormously valuable to the UK economy but suffers from a chronic shortage of skills, let down by the leaking pipes of the education system that removes the option of an engineering career for too many young people at every stage of their education. There has been scant progress in addressing the UK’s engineering skills gap since I first reviewed the education system five years ago, but the government’s Year of Engineering campaign in 2018 has shown what can be achieved with concerted and coordinated action. As a profession, we must now continue to raise the profile of engineering nationally and leverage this to galvanise change for the better.

“We need to broaden the curriculum for post-16 education, value technical education on a par with academic progression, unlock more potential from the Apprenticeship Levy, and guarantee affordable, fair and inclusive access to engineering degrees. These changes have the potential to pay dividends in the years to come for young people, the economy, and society.”

Professor Sarah Spurgeon OBE, President of the Engineering Professors’ Council, said:

“We wholeheartedly welcome this report and are proud to have contributed to its findings. The chain that links the development of tomorrow’s engineers through schools, colleges, universities and into the workplace is broken. This is not just a problem for UK engineering, but for the whole economy. Engineering is at the heart of the Industrial Strategy and Brexit will bring huge challenges in terms of skills shortages.

“As the seedbeds of innovation, our university engineering departments have been particularly successful in attracting talent from all over the world. International students make up 40% of our students and they contribute hugely to our education system and businesses in so many ways.” 

DATA BLOG: First glimpse HESA student data for 2017/18 highlights a decline in part-time, postgraduate, and male enrolments

First glimpse official 2017/8 HESA student data appears static in the Engineering and technology subject group (https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/17-01-2019/sb252-higher-education-student-statistics/subjects).

A closer look at the absolute numbers shows a nominal one-year fall in Engineering and technology enrolments – against small increases overall and in all Science subject areas.

But this unremarkable picture belies some underlying Engineering and technology subject group trends that warrant a closer look once the fuller picture is published by HESA at the end of January:

  • There was an overall increase in full-time enrolments. 1,105 (1%) more full-time Engineering and technology enrolments in 2017/8 were masked by a part-time slump (-1,285, 4%). This reversal was almost exclusively not first year enrolments; are part-time returners switching to full-time study?
  • There was a small increase in (full-time) undergraduate enrolments. Undergraduate Engineering and technology enrolments were up slightly overall (+ 485) but a similar reduction in part time enrolments (-495) masked a small, 1%, increase (+980) in full-time undergraduate numbers.
  • But there was a drop in the number of full-time undergraduate first years. Down by 2% (-655).
  • There was an increase in first year full-time postgraduate enrolments. These increased by 4% (+660).
  • But a drop in postgraduate enrolments overall. Also down by 2% (-665). Education was the only other subject to see an absolute fall in postgraduate numbers.
  • This was largely owing to a drop in post-graduate re-enrolments. Postgraduate enrolments which were not first year declined by 1045 in 2017/8.
  • The gender gap is closing. Female enrolments in Engineering and technology have increased by 17.5% since 2013/4 compared to a 1.1% increase in males. In absolute numbers, female enrolments have increased 3 times more than male enrolments (+4470 and +1465, respectively). In 2016/7, the number of male Engineering and technology enrolments decreased.
  • First degree is the only level of study where enrolments are increasing over time.
  • The profile of Engineering and technology enrolments to Welsh providers appears to be changing. In 2013/4, around a quarter of all Wales institutions enrolments were other undergraduate. This proportion has dropped each year to 15.5% in 2017/8. Part-timer enrolments to Wales have fallen correspondingly, from approximately 1 in 3 to 1 in 4 in the same period.

A more granular level of student enrolment data will be available from HESA at the end of January.