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.

Bid to host EPC Congress in 2020 or 2021

DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSIONS: 19th June 2019

Proposals are invited from higher education Engineering departments to host the Engineering Professors’ Council Annual Congress in 2020 or 2021.

‘Hosting the 2018 Engineering Professors’ Council Congress was a great way to showcase the University’s work to a wide range of experts in the field as well as to the professional bodies in engineering.  Our staff and students gained a lot from explaining their approach to engineering education and research, and we were also able to explore new collaborations to broaden the reach of our engineering activities.  We were delighted to welcome the EPC to Harper Adams and hope that other universities taking the opportunity act as the venue for the Congress will gain as much from the experience as we have.’
David Llewellyn, Vice-Chancellor, Harper Adams University (hosts of the 2018 Annual Congress) 

The Annual Congress is the flagship event in the EPC calendar, an opportunity for engineering academics from across the UK to come together to explore policy and practice and to network.

Download guidelines.

Download the form for submitting a proposal.

Each year, Congress is hosted by a different institution: 

The Congress usually takes place in April or May and lasts two days with a reception on the evening before the Congress formally starts.

  • 2016: The University of Hull hosted Congress as a prestigious addition to its preparations as European City of Culture. 
  • 2017: Coventry University hosted taking the opportunity to demonstrate the city’s close associated with transport engineering and manufacturing. 
  • 2018: Harper Adams University displayed its cutting edge status as a leading centre of agricultural engineering including automated farming and a range of off-road vehicles. 
  • 2019: UCL is host for this year’s congress where its proximity to the seat of Government has allowed an amazing line-up of high-profile speakers on a range of policy issues at a time of historic challenges. 

The host institution nominates a Congress Convenor who will become a member of the EPC Board for up to three years (2019-21 for the 2020 Convenor; 2020-22 for the 2021 Convenor) and who, with guidance from the EPC executive team, will lead the organisation of the Congress, including determining the themes and scope for the Congress, and the speakers and events. 

We are inviting bids to act as host for either of the next two years. You can specify one year or the other or apply without choosing a year. We will not select the same host for both years.

Download guidelines.

Download the form for submitting a proposal.


To submit a proposal, complete the form here and email it to Johnny Rich, Chief Executive, at j.rich@epc.ac.ukby 19thJune 2019. Johnny can also be contacted at the same address or by phone on 078-1111 4292 to discuss any aspect of Congress or the proposal process. 


What is expected from the host

The host institution (host) would be expected to provide:

  • an academic of suitable standing to act as Convenor and other staff resource as necessary to assist planning the Congress;
  • suitable function rooms such as a lecture theatre and smaller break-out rooms, as well as space for networking;
  • catering for the Congress;
  • possibly accommodation, particularly, for early career staff delegates to the Congress who may be provided free accommodation in student residences;
  • management of the Congress during the event;
  • financial accountability in accordance with the financial arrangements (see below).

There will be some support from the EPC executive, but it is advisable to ensure that the host can provide conference support staff as the smooth running of the Congress will primarily be the Convenor’s responsibility.

The Congress usually attracts up to 100 delegates, but the numbers have grown in recent years and the host should be able to provide for 150.


Selection process

The process for selection as host involves submission of your proposal to the EPC Board, which will conduct a vote. The basis for its decision is entirely at its discretion, but they will take into account issues such as the nominated Convenor, the suitability of the facilities, the arrangements for costs, the geographical suitability (although the EPC is keen not always to be restricted to big centres of population), the suggested activities such as Congress Dinner venue and other attractions, and other arrangements to ensure the smooth running of the Congress.

The host institution must be a member of the EPC. We would particularly welcome joint proposals from separate institutions to host jointly, such as two engineering departments at separate universities in the same city.


Financial arrangements

The suggestion for the financial arrangement between the EPC and the host forms part of the proposal. The EPC will seek to minimise its risk and, if possible, would like to generate a surplus from the event to contribute to its own in-house costs in running the Congress. However, the quality of the event and its appeal to members will be of greater weight in selecting the host institution.

That said, it may be helpful to provide as guidance the following arrangement that has been used in the past. The EPC would hope that the host would aim to meet at least this arrangement:

Costs may be divided into three categories as follows:

  • ‘External costs’: ie. costs that will genuinely have to be met, such as catering, external venue hire, student ambassadors, etc. The EPC would guarantee all these external costs and, if necessary, would pay them up-front. In any case, the EPC would be liable for these costs.
  • ‘Internal costs’: such as staff who are already employed by the host. The host would guarantee these costs and, in the event that registration income was insufficient to meet them, the host would be liable for them.
  • ‘Internal fees’: where the only cost to the host is a notional price that it sets internally – room hire, for instance. Once the two types of costs above have been met from revenue, 75% of any remainder may be used to defray the host’s internal fees and the other 25% will be due to the EPC to defray our internal costs and fees. After the host’s internal fees have been met, any surplus would be split equally.

The proposal should make it clear whether the host proposes to manages the bookings process and receive the registration fees or would prefer this to be handled by the EPC. If the host receives the fees, after the Congress it will be expected to provide a full account of income and expenditure (outlining the categories of expense as above, if that model is used). If the EPC receives the fees, the host may invoice the EPC for costs in accordance with the agreement. In either case, the host will be expected to agree with the EPC a full budget for the Congress at the earliest opportunity (and before substantial Congress planning) and would not be entitled to incur costs on behalf of the EPC outside the agreed budget without separate agreement.

While the host will be responsible for setting the registration fees and packages for delegates, these must be agreed in advance with the EPC. These should not include a more than 10% increase on equivalent packages for the previous year. A significant number of places for early careers staff (not more than 5 years in an academic post) should be made available at the lowest possible rate (including, ideally, some complimentary places).

In some years, the host has acted as a major sponsor of the event contributing to the costs or not passing on some or all of the costs it incurs. Any such support would be acknowledged and the EPC will seek to support the host’s objectives in sponsoring Congress. Any other sponsorship revenue will normally be retained by the EPC or used to offset the costs of running the Congress.

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!”.

Blending arts and sciences: gimmick or necessity?

The two culture of arts and sciences are like oil and water, but, asks Prof Mehmet Karamanoglu, could they be mixed? Indeed, perhaps it’s essential that we get them to learn from each other?


The higher education sector has been battling with the issue of introducing ‘creativity’ into engineering education for decades, as if this never exists in engineering programmes. 

Many institutions in the UK have tried to address this by creating collaborative programmes between departments of Engineering and Art & Design. The academic programme often sits in an Engineering department with modules from the Art & Design department, but less so the reverse. 

Over the past 30 years, I have seen such projects come and go and the end result has been the same – not a positive experience for students or staff involved. It goes without saying that there are also issues in the use of the terminology – we often talk about ‘Arts and Sciences‘, but what we really mean is ‘Design and Engineering‘. 

In an attempt to explain why such collaborations have not been successful, we often put this down to the fact that the two areas have their own cultures. This gives rise to the term you now see used by the media and politicians, the ‘Two Cultures‘: although the term has been used in academic debate for decades since C P Snow’s lecture of that name in 1959.

To look at this more closely, first we need to understand the obstacles that get in the way. Let’s call these two cultures, Camp A and Camp S.

Some key characteristics:

  • Camp A has a monopoly on the word ‘creative’ and no other camp can use it.
  • Camp S does not associate itself with the word ‘creative’ even though it practices it daily to solve problems. 
  • Camp A hates structures and rules, an inherent part of its often rebellious makeup.
  • Camp S cannot operate without structures and rules – operates systematically and hates change.
  • Camp A is territorial even within itself. Not really happy to share resources. Each of its constituents operates in an autonomous mode.
  • Camp S is territorial externally but unified within itself. 
  • Camp A are divergent thinkers, hate constraints, often not interested in the end result but the journey it takes and the experience of that journey. The destination is often irrelevant.
  • Camp S applies constraints too soon and arrives at a destination but may miss vital opportunities along the way. It operates too rigidly.
  • Camp A practices team teaching, often with contradictory views among its members.
  • Camp S operates in solo mode – one class, one master.
  • Camp A showcases their work and teaches by teams of staff. Each team owns their programme and has their own work space.
  • Camp S keeps their work preserved for themselves, does not show off.

Barriers to making the two camps work together:

  • Financial barriers – budgets that are devolved to individual camps is a key obstacle and will lead to effort being spent on counting pennies than producing useful work.
  • Having own physical facilities – ends up in duplication of resources, neither as good as they ought to be.
  • Lack of trust, value and respect in each other’s way of working.
  • Each camp retaining their work environments and students visiting each camp for their studies.
  • If this is an academic programme, as the approaches are so different, this will set some serious confusion for students, they will end up as academic schizophrenics.

My personal experience to crack this issue:

  • Do not force the two camps to come together artificially. It is akin to making an academic emulsion but with far worse side effects. So many try to create joint ventures or programmes, but blending the two cultures from two separate entities does not work as they always preserve their inherent make-up. Short term success is possible, but it is not sustainable. It relies heavily on individual personalities which often clash and so the success does not last. 
  • The only successful way that has stood the test of time is to grow a single but a mixed-culture camp from scratch. In the camp you will need staff with Camp A and Camp S characteristics, but the critical point is that they belong to the same camp.
  • There are no financial barriers – it is a single camp with a single budget. In fact, take the staff cost out of the camp’s budget to the next layer up and what is left is not worth arguing about.
  • There are no mine-and-yours physical resource issues. It is all ours
  • Most critically, Camp A and Camp S type staff will depend on each other to survive, learn to get on together and accept that there are different ways to do things for both. In other words, accept, value and respect each other.
  • The mixed-camp needs to be given time to evolve and this will take a while. The more urgent the survival becomes, the sooner the integration will happen. Once established, the new camp develops its own culture.

Having been through such an experience myself in 1996 at Middlesex University, it took four years to realise that operating as two separate camps would not work, so I started from scratch. Now, nearly two decades down the road from setting up the Design Engineering Department, there is no looking back, but I’ll probably always remain a recovering engineer.

To return to my opening point, it is not that we wanted to introduce ‘creativity’ into our engineering programmes, but rather it was actually about changing our practice and our way of doing things in order to acknowledge the evolving nature of the discipline, which has became practice-based. It was this that led to the creation of what I call the three pillars of practice-based learning in this new camp:

  • A curriculum model that recognises the appropriate teaching, learning and assessment approaches needed;
  • A physical Environmentthat supports the pedagogy adopted;
  • Staff resourcesthat can embrace the pedagogy adopted and operate within the environment created.

Prof Mehmet Karamanoglu is Professor of Design Engineering and Head of the Department of Design Engineering and Mathematics at Middlesex University, London.

Augar arrives

EPC Chief Executive, Johnny Rich reports on the long-awaited Review of Post-18 Education Funding in England and the possible implications for engineering in HE.

At over 200 pages and featuring 50 recommendations, the Augar Review will take some time to chew, let alone digest and (to follow the nutritional metaphor perhaps a couple of steps too far) turn into a burst of energy or perhaps a pile of waste. However, at the time of writing, the report has now been out for one day, so here’s my quick take on some of the most important points for EPC members.

The fee cut: As has been widely reported and trailed before publication, the Review recommends a cut in the headline tuition fee from £9,250 to £7,500. Obviously, for most engineering departments, that’s way below the per student cost of delivery.

However, the Review also recommends that the total investment in the HE sector remains the same – topped up by teaching grants – albeit frozen for the next few years. It argues that this will be manageable because there is a demographic uplift in the number of 18-year olds coming until 2025. The increased economies of scale should mitigate the freeze. The comfort is a little cold though. There are potential drops in international and EU students following the reputational fallout from Brexit (even if Brexit itself never happens) and, as the Review points out, too many universities are basing their finances on projections of growth of which at least some must, arithmetically, prove to be over-optimistic.

The Review does not envisage that top-up grants are evenly spread. Courses with good employment outcomes – measured, for the most part, in terms of salaries – would receive far bigger top-ups than those that result in less easily measured value. This appears to be good news for Engineering, which is specifically cited as a discipline where there are skills shortages and costs are recognised as high, and bad news for Creative Arts subjects which get a lot of stick for producing a lot of graduates without clear earnings premiums.

But it’s not as simple as that. Unless the top-up for Engineering is high enough to reflect the additional cost of teaching, we may have a situation where cheaper courses can still yield a margin on the basis of lower fees, but expensive ones not only cannot contribute to institutional overheads, but they can’t even pay for themselves. The commercial pressure will be to axe the expensive courses and do exactly the opposite of what the Review hopes to achieve.

Levels 4 and 5: Large parts of the Review report are devoted to a raft of measures to better support Further Education, including capital investment, access to loan-style tuition funding for level 4 and 5 qualifications on a par with the basic annual ticket price for degrees (£7,500), and a lifelong learning account (equivalent to the cost of four years of university study) allowing students to build up qualifications throughout their lives in modular chunks.

The Review does more to break down distinctions between HE and FE institutions rather than build them up, so, for universities that already offer qualifications at different levels, or those that decide to, there are opportunities here to build a diverse and financially sustainable offering.

Interim qualifications: Part of the drift away from seeing a level 6 (degree-level) qualification as the gold standard of post-18 education is the recommendation that university degrees should all include an interim qualification after the first or second year. The idea is to combat drop-outs – or at least to combat the stigma attached to dropping out without anything to show for it but debt.

It’s hard to think of significant objections to this recommendation, so universities need to start thinking about how it will work. For Engineering courses, it’s raises a number of particularly thorny issues. Would an interim qualification be accredited? How would this work in an integrated masters course?

Disadvantaged students: As well as topping up fees for expensive courses, the Review proposes a significant shift of top-up funds towards institutions that admit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The reason for this is presented not merely as social engineering, but in recognition of the fact that, statistically speaking, for a host of reasons, it costs more to teach these students than their more affluent peers.

How you define ‘disadvantage’ is discussed and, while not completely shredding the POLAR metrics, the Review clearly thinks other alternatives may be better. There is no recognition of the fact that underrepresentation in HE takes different forms in different disciplines.

Engineering has particular challenges attracting women, BAME students and those from lower socio-economic groups. It has less of a problem attracting state-educated males than most subjects. Whatever intersectional measures of disadvantage are used may have unintended repercussions for Engineering. As with the threat of reduced fees, this well-intentioned recommendation may create reasons to axe Engineering courses and departments to massage the numbers of a university as a whole.

Foundation courses: In a move to support students from under-represented groups, some Engineering departments have introduced Foundation years as preparation for a full degree. The Review recommends that these be dropped altogether in favour of Access to HE diplomas, which currently are funded at a lower level. In other words, they want to stop universities from using Foundation years to ‘game’ an extra year of higher funding.

In a report where the arguments are usually clear and well evidenced (even if they don’t always reach the right solution), this recommendation seems unfounded and – I put my hands up – I just don’t understand how it achieves anything given that I would have thought Access to HE courses would, under the Review other proposals now attract the same funding as Foundation years. Meanwhile, it shuts down an access route to Engineering that some universities have found is a useful way of ensuring degree success for some students – such as those with BTECs or lower attainment in, say, maths or physics.

Entry requirements: Before the publication of the Review, there was lot of kite-flying (not least from Education Secretary Damian Hinds) about the possibility of a de facto cap on student numbers by saying that only those with equivalent to three Ds or above at A level would qualify for financial support.

There are very few students studying Engineering with entry grades that low. Those that are have usually gained their place on the basis of some particular exception. This exemplifies the problem with this policy: the few students it would have blocked are just the ones where investment in their education might have yielded the biggest difference to their prospects.

That’s presumably why the Review has not come out fully in favour of the idea. Yesterday, the Universities Minister Chris Skidmore tweeted his delight that it had “never featured” in the report. Given the section titled “A minimum entry threshold” on p99, the whole of the next page and a half devoted to discussing how such a threshold might be contextualised and then recommendation (3.7) on the next page, I’d say “never featured” is a bit of an overstatement.

Still, for now, that idea has gone away. Instead, universities are fairly firmly warned to put their recruitment business in order or else. Low offers must only be used judiciously and if ‘conditional unconditional’ offers aren’t curbed, then the Review has spelt out that the Government should step in. (Whether, under the Higher Education & Research Act, it has the power to do so without legislation is doubtful though.)


That’s just a few takeaways. No doubt I will kick myself for forgetting to mention dozens of others, but I will update EPC members further as the debate progresses.

One thing to add though is a comment on the status of these recommendations. The Augar Review is a high-profile independent report to the DfE as part of a government review. It is not a White Paper (ie. a plan for legislation). It is not even a Green Paper (a consultation document). It is just a series of considered ideas based on trying to come up with good solution rather than politically motivated ones.

There is every possibility the Review could be ignored, not least because Theresa May – principal sponsor of the exercise – is about to become a rather embarrassing footnote in political history. She put Damian Hinds in post and, although he’s one of the few Tory MPs who seems not to have designs on becoming prime minister, there’s no guarantee he will hang around in his job long enough to put the recommendations into action.

Putting them into action is easier said than done. Some of the recommendations would require legislation and whenever bills relating to student finance come to the Houses of Parliament their path tends to be rockier than a quarry dump-pile. Moreover, bear in mind party politics is so chaotic at the moment that the only vote anyone has dared put before the Commons for the past few weeks was on the anodyne issue of wild animals in circuses (although that is an apt metaphor).

All of this is why yesterday’s launch of the Review was introduced by Mrs May herself. She wanted to send a clear message to her successor that they should see this through. It’s her last ditch attempt at scribbling something, anything, on her CV under the heading of ‘achievements in role’.

The leadership contenders may or may not adopt these ideas. The chances of them engaging with them in detail are slim, but there are two main reasons they will want to do something, even if it’s not this.

Firstly, doing nothing is almost not an option because the Office for National Statistics ruled in December last year that the current accounting mechanism for student loans must change to reflect more accurately what they actually cost the public purse. This means we are entering the political bartering of a Comprehensive Spending Review with higher education costing tens of billions more than planned in terms of the public deficit. It’s all an accounting con, but it matters in terms of perceptions and economic confidence.

Secondly, Labour’s pitch at the 2017 election to axe fees altogether was seen as a major cause of the supposed ‘youthquake’ of support that wiped out May’s majority. Politically, it would be hard for any new Conservative leader to go into the next election – which could happen by accident at almost any time – without any response whatsoever to Labour’s offer.

That said, despite a lot of good reasoning and a host of suggestions at least some of which are very sensible, it’s hard to see how anything in the Augar Review is the vote-winning miracle that polls suggest the Conservatives need right now. After all, if £9,250 a year was off-putting, £7,500 with a more regressive repayment mechanism isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a bargain.

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 Elections 2019

NOMINATIONS FOR ELECTION TO THE BOARD OF THE ENGINEERING PROFESSORS’ COUNCIL

Honorary Treasurer, Secretary and four elected Ordinary Board Members

On the occasion of the AGM, the period of office of the Honorary Treasurer, Professor Jim Yip, and of the Secretary, Professor David Harrison, will both come to an end. That will result in vacancies for both posts for a term of office of two years from May 2019 until the EPC Annual General Meeting in 2021. Four elected positions for members of the EPC Board shall also fall vacant.

Elections (if required) shall be held during the 25th Annual General Meeting of the Engineering Professors’ Council on 14th May 2019, which will be held during the EPC Annual Congress 2019 at UCL.

Any Individual Member of the EPC wishing to stand for this position should indicate their intention using this form. Nominations must reach Johnny Rich, Chief Executive, at j.rich@epc.ac.uk no later than 09.00 on Wednesday 8th May 2019. Johnny is happy to discuss the role impartially and in confidence. You can contact him at the same email or on 078 1111 4292.

Candidates should be nominated a Council Member (an individual nominated by an Institutional Member as one of its representatives) and seconded by another Council Member by the deadline specified in the Notice of the Annual General Meeting using the nomination form.

This completed form will be circulated to those attending the AGM at which, in the event of more than one candidate, each Council Member will be invited to vote for their chosen candidate (by secret ballot). The candidate with the highest number of votes is elected. In the event of a tie, the President shall have the casting vote. 

Only individuals from Institutional Members (i.e. universities) that have paid their subscription for the current academic year, by at least two weeks before the AGM, are eligible to stand for election and/or vote at the AGM.