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.

Teaching students to learn for themselves

Dr Sunny Bains, author of a new book on emerging technologies, examines how to support students to make use of the technical literature and to look beyond it.

The best engineers can be thrown in at the deep end of a new problem and research their way out. That’s part of the ethos of combining conventional academic courses with more practical, project-based learning. 

This approach forces students to discover constraints and compromises for themselves, optimizing their solutions as well and as creatively as they can, rather than solving well-constructed questions with tractable answers. Often, they do this work as part of a group. 

Deep-end problem-based learning ticks a lot of boxes: teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, application of technical skills, and so on.

Unfortunately, what we choose to teach students formally before we launch them into these projects is often insufficient. 

Yes, they’re trained in the deep technical skills that we think they’ll need, and (if they’re lucky) even some of the transferable onesBut what we don’t normally teach them is how to systematically and thoroughly research a topic. 

More specifically, we don’t teach them where to look for answers to questions. Partly, this is because we are academics: to us the answer is usually a technical paper, possibly a book, and we’re so used to looking for these that we don’t think twice about it.

But to use technical literature first you need to be able to search for and find what you need effectively. Even if you do find the papers you think you’re looking for, you may not yet have the expertise to read them. This is especially, but not exclusively, true for undergraduates. Further, once you’re in industry, journals and proceedings aren’t going to alert you to what your competition (possibly start-ups in stealth mode) are up to. 

If I had to prioritize, my top three suggestions for helping students to research a new subject would be as follows: keywords, the technical press, and patents. Although you might think that the current generation (which grew up with the iPhone, never mind the internet) would be more expert at finding material on the web than we were, that’s far from true. Just a few minutes teaching them some basics can go a long way.

Keywords are key

First, we all know that keywords are critical to all kinds of searches, including the technical literature, but what students don’t realize is how creative you have to be in using them. Very similar ideas often have different names in different fields, and searching for the wrong terms can miss most of the most important information. 

Students need to know to gather lots of different keywords from the various sources, and then to search for them in different combinations to find the information they need.

Journals and magazines

Next, students should know that not all useful information has to be of the highly-technical variety. A good way of getting into a new field is to find news that’s readable but still contains specialist information. This might be in publications aimed at an industry (like Water and Wastewater Treatment), a society (like E&T Magazine), or even a popular science market like Wired.

A good place to start for articles like this is Engineering Inspiration, a website we set up at UCL (and free for all) that brings together interesting technical articles from across the web (we have 50K+ articles online to date). Reading enough of this kind of material can do wonders to set the context for a project: with the constraints and values of the industry coming through in every story.

Patently clear

Finally, patents (which are now freely available to search on the web) are a great source of information because they cover a lot of technology that is too commercially sensitive to be published in other forums. 

It’s true that they’re completely unreadable, but by following the breadcrumbs of who has filed what patent it’s possible to figure out who is doing roughly what. With a little imagination, engineers can pull together clues based on what the inventors did before the patent, who they’re working with now, what theydid before, and so make an educated guess about what is in the pipeline.

Of course, there are many more sources to look at: conference programmes can be even more informative than proceedings; books (remember books?) can be hugely helpful if used well, and peoplecan provide insights and feedback that no written source ever could… 

The main thing is not to assume that students will somehow learn their research skills by osmosis. We forget how much we take for granted after a lifetime of information-gathering: by giving our students just a little bit of formal instruction on how to do this critical task, we can make them hugely more productive.

Dr Sunny Bains (see sunnybains.com) is the author of Explaining the Future: How to Research, Analyze, and Report on Emerging Technologies.She teaches engineering and physical sciences students at University College London.

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.

DATA BLOG: EPC engineering enrolments survey results

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EPC Engineering Enrolments Survey

Firstly, a huge thank you for your contributions which the Recruitment and Admissions Forum confirmed are highly valued by our members. You told us that the data is used in many ways, from enabling individual members and departments to understand their experience relative to the sector and their comparators, to evidence-based decision making on new courses to offer. The survey gives us all an early temperature check of the health of HE undergraduate and postgraduate engineering enrolments; our survey is the only place you can gain this insight, many months before enrolment data for 2018/19 is published by HESA.

This year we saw improved member engagement and data quality, plus an increased response rate from a greater number of universities resulting in better overall coverage across more discrete disciplines. We will continue to work to make your involvement as easy as possible.

Stable enrolments, changing distribution

  • The EU share of the undergraduate market contracted for non-Russell Group universities; while the Home share expanded.
  • Postgraduate courses saw a higher proportion of overseas enrolments; especially in the Russell Group which reported greatest volatility.
  • At undergraduate level, Non-Russell Group universities dominated the home market.
  • London universities reported a decline in engineering enrolments.
  • Mechanical engineering remains the sector headliner, but fares poorly when it comes to attracting women.
  • The most notable growth was reported in Biomedical engineering, with Product design, General engineering and Other also showing clear growth overall.
  • The most notable decline was in Mineral, metallurgy and materials engineering.
  • Software engineering may also be on the up, but for undergraduates was proportionally the singularly most EU dependent discipline.
  • A three-fold growth was reported in enrolments on degree apprenticeships. But where are the part-time enrolments?

Summary findings

Mechanical engineering remains the sector superstar, dominating our sample population (and official data shows undergraduate numbers have doubled in a decade); members also reported that the applicant field in this area remains strong.

Software engineering features more prominently in our survey than ever before. But interim UCAS undergraduate data doesn’t suggest an engineering surge, so if software engineering is really taking off, it may be at the expense of other disciplines. What’s more, at undergraduate level, software engineering is proportionally the singularly most EU dependent discipline in our sample (charts 1 and 2).

Both disciplines fared poorly when it comes to attracting women into engineering, between them they had the worse female:male ratios in our sample, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Nor does the EU student sample support the cause, which is surprising given Europe’s track record in this space. But recruiting from further afield (other overseas) does, particularly if you’re in the Russell Group…and enrolling postgraduates! Biomedical engineering continues to have the best female:male ratio in our sample.

This year we celebrated huge gains in the coverage of our female:male data, which was almost complete for home undergraduate enrolments (chart 3).

The EU share of the undergraduate market has contracted in our survey for non-Russell Group universities, while the Home share has expanded. Could this be an early sign to the new direction as Brexit looms near?

Postgraduate engineering courses saw a much higher proportion of overseas enrolments, especially within the Russell Group. At undergraduate level, Non-Russell Group universities dominated the home market (chart 4).

There are huge regional variations, with the North and London attracting the most enrolments from overseas, particularly at postgraduate level (chart 5).

Our survey showed part-time undergraduate enrolments to be pitiful in numbers, mostly seen in Civil engineering. At postgraduate level, part-time study was far more common, with Civil engineering again leading the way.

Degree apprenticeships

We received submissions for 3.5 x more degree apprenticeship enrolments than last year (572), and these were returned by one quarter of our respondents (approximately half of these were in addition to the enrolment figures submitted elsewhere). Degree apprenticeship enrolments were reported in all disciplines excepting Biomedical engineering, Chemical, process and energy engineering and Product design. They were dominated by Mechanical, aero and production engineering and Civil engineering. Just 3% of these were at postgraduate level (chart 6).

Undergraduate enrolments compared with 2017-18

The most notable growth was reported in Biomedical engineering, with Product design, General engineering and Other also showing clear growth overall. The most notable decline was in Mineral, metallurgy and materials engineering. Among the other disciplines, there were mixed fortunes.

Following an apparent hit last year, Chemical, process and energy engineering witnessed greater growth than decline this year. Members report that attracting core Electronic and Electrical Engineering students continues to be challenging.

The levels of stability (the gaps between the lower and higher bars) were relatively uniform in the data, suggesting relative stability in the engineering undergraduate sector (chart 7).

At postgraduate level, growth outweighed decline across all disciplines except Civil engineering and Software engineering. The stand-out pattern is, similarly, the consistency of those reporting their enrolments to be about the same (chart 8).

Enrolments at universities across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland collectively showed a notable increase overall, together with those in the South and the North. At undergraduate level, universities in the Central region also showed much greater growth than decline. Across the board, universities based in London fared worse with both undergraduate and postgraduate enrolments reported as being most in decline relative to their growth (chart 9).

While non-Russell Group universities reported relatively stable enrolments overall, the Russell Group witnessed greater volatility, showing growth overall, most convincingly at postgraduate level (chart 10).

Reflections

Notwithstanding Brexit, we also know that some (non-EU) overseas markets are struggling. And, of course, we know that recruitment and selection are made in the context of institutional strategies and targets. Share your own reflections below…

In addition to the slides published here, a headlines slide deck is available to download for all EPC members.

International Baccalaureate: the perfect preparation for engineers?

This blog has been written for the EPC by Henry Coverdale, Director of Post 16 Education at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. Henry was the author of one of the posters presented at the EPC Recruitment & Admissions Forum this month. 

“Our narrow education system, which encourages early specialisation, is no longer fit for purpose in an increasingly interdisciplinary world.”
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel Laureate and President of the Royal Society.

With offers as they currently stand, International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma candidates are less likely to enrol on STEM courses at university the students with other qualifications (HESA).

This is a tragedy on three fronts: firstly, Engineering desperately needs more undergraduates with the sort of skills that the IB provides. The fact that every IB graduate has studied Maths and a Science, while also tackling humanities, literature and a foreign language, makes them ideal for the ethically difficult and creative problems that will face society in the future.

Secondly, IB graduates do fantastically well at university on STEM courses. They are more likely to be awarded a ‘good degree’ than an A level contemporary and, critically for STEM, they are also twice as likely to embark on further study after the completion of their first degree (HESA).

Finally, IB graduates are disproportionately women, if engineering departments were to actively seek out IB candidates it would be a pathway to some superbly creative and scientifically minded young women in schools, which would help to develop diversity in Engineering.

If Engineering departments were to be proactive in recruiting IB students, it would encourage more schools to take the plunge and offer this brilliant qualification, which would improve the calibre of British engineering students no end.

“More schools must adopt the IB – students shouldn’t be forced to narrow their options so early”
– Naomi Climer, President of the Institution for Engineering and Technology

The first, and arguably most important, place to start is reexamining the maths requirements for entry, especially now that the IB maths course is changing to create ‘applications’ courses that should be of particular benefit to engineers and economists. The IB Higher Level Maths course is internationally regarded – up there with Singapore Maths school-leaver qualifications – and it is the one subject where the UCAS points equivalent to A level Maths really doesn’t stack up. Research suggests that Higher Level Maths grade 6 is at an A* grade, with a 4 being approximate to an A at A level. As such, universities examining their Maths requirements could be an excellent start to encouraging more IB students to follow engineering careers. Perhaps, even (following Warwick University’s lead) either Maths or Physics at Higher Level is sufficient, given the other skills IB students arrive with.

If the UK is to tackle its uncertain future from a position of strength, with a workforce able to tackle problem solving in a creative and interdisciplinary way, it is imperative that more pupils are able and encouraged to take the IB diploma at 16. University engineering departments demonstrating they value the depth and breadth of the diploma would be a great step in the right direction. As David Willetts, former Minister for Universities and Science, has pointed out, universities are uniquely placed to influence Sixth Form curriculum decision-making.


This blog reflects the views of the author. The EPC does not have a stated position. To add your view to the debate, please comment below.

Applications open for RAEng Engineering Leaders Scholarship

Are your students the next generation of engineering leaders?

Undergraduates who are leaders, or act as role models in your institution or their community should be encouraged to apply to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Engineering Leaders Scholarship (ELS) scheme.

Some of the previous recipients of the scholarships have mentioned that without the opportunity to explore the opportunities that the funding provides (£5,000 to put towards career development activities) they may have turned their back on engineering and pursued finance, consulting or other professions.

Other recipients have met senior engineers that have acted as mentors or provided advice during their scholarship which in some cases has turned into a graduate job post-graduation.

Each year of the three years that students are part of the programme they will attend an annual networking weekend along with around 100 other ELS scholars from all over the UK.

Applications are welcome from all talented undergraduates who meet the criteria but for those of you at Post-92 universities if you could raise awareness with your students and encourage them to apply as they are less likely to apply to the scheme than undergraduates at either Russell group universities or other institutions that have been successful in the past.

Jacqueline Clay, the University Programme Manager at the Royal Academy of Engineering is more than happy to speak with any of you or your students so please get in touch for more information els@raeng.org.uk

More information on the Engineering Leaders Scholarships can be found here.

DATA BLOG: Will this year’s undergraduate engineering intake really be bad news?

An interim assessment of placed UCAS applicants for this autumn highlights that engineering follows a sector-wide slide in placed applicants overall but bucks a sector increase in applicants placed from the EU and a bumper crop of placed applicants from overseas.

Of course, this is only part of the story – in so far as it is limited to undergraduate unconditional firms through UCAS, is a snapshot taken quite a while before movement is complete, and will not translate directly to enrolments – but the findings highlight the importance of getting a better picture of actual enrolments as early as possible. The only way to get an early look at the patterns of actual enrolment is through the EPC’s engineering enrolments survey, and the more universities participate, the clearer the picture will be. Never has this early insight been so critical.

UCAS data highlights

Applicants placed on undergraduate engineering courses through UCAS looks set to fall for the second year running. The latest UCAS data, which gives the 2018 entry position 28 days after A level results, shows that the number of applicants accepted to engineering through UCAS has fallen below 28,000 at this point in the cycle for the first time since 2014.

A look at the national context across all subjects shows that engineering is following the overall trend.

But for pockets of undergraduates, is the outlook worse for engineering? For those from England, the growth between 2009 and 2016 was certainly stronger in Engineering, and the decline is marginally less. This is positive news and represents a significant slice of the market. However, for placed applicants from the remaining UK administrations engineering appears to fare worse than the sector as a whole. And while the sector saw growth in placed applicants from the EU and overseas (as well as those from Scotland) between 2017 and 2018, engineering did not.

Of course, this interim assessment of the 2018 cycle isn’t yet the full UCAS picture, and I am reminded that a count of unconditional firm UCAS applicants doesn’t translate to the bums on seats at enrolment (or even full admissions data).

It is not yet possible to say which engineering disciplines have been hardest hit in UCAS terms as data at engineering discipline level won’t be available until late 2018.

However, the findings of the EPC Engineering Enrolment Survey will be launched on 14th November at the annual Recruitment and Admissions Forum which will be held this year at Sheffield Hallam University. The preview of enrolment patterns to engineering courses at UK universities is critical benchmarking data, valuable for any staff with an interest in recruitment or admissions for engineering departments. Our survey gives us all a first glance at engineering enrolments long before official HESA data becomes available. You can complete this year’s survey via the EPC website.

The Forum also welcomes Helen Thorne, UCAS’ Director of External relations, who promises to share unprecedented insight into undergraduate engineering trends and applicant behaviours. You can book your place here.

The full data on which this analysis is based is available to download from the UCAS website.

Creating a new breed of ‘supergrads’

Creating a new breed of ‘supergrads’

When it comes to new approaches to education, what happens in engineering is the canary in the mine.

Along with medicine no discipline more clearly confronts the questions that the whole sector is now facing about the right balance between learning by doing, and learning by understanding. So everybody in higher education should take notice of the current debate in engineering about degree apprenticeships – and the extent to which they could (or should) be a game-changer.

There’s a well-documented shortfall of engineering graduates, a shortage of engineering and technical skills, and many employers tell us that graduates are not job-ready. So why aren’t we more excited about degree apprenticeships?

This is the theme of a landmark report published today by the Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC), the voice of engineering academics in the UK, representing 7,500 individuals in more than 80 universities.

Employer-led, not employer-dominated

The report states that in order to make degree apprenticeships in engineering a success, we must work collaboratively to put apprentices at the heart of the debate, and make an honest and reflective appraisal of what works and what doesn’t. We also need to convince policymakers that apprenticeships are not currently going according to plan, but that it’s not too late to make the changes required to make them attractive to school leavers and employers.

We have arrived at a system where degree apprenticeships are intended to be “employer-led” but instead they often become “employer-dominated”, failing to focus on apprentices’ wider learning needs and long-term goals. In an honest desire to ensure the relevance of apprenticeships, the system may have overlooked what we have already learnt about learning. We need to pool the understanding of academics and of industry to create degree apprenticeships that appeal to prospective apprentices and provide them, as well as employers, with what they need. Degree apprenticeships must be partnerships between employers, providers and apprentices themselves – there is no room for silo cultures here.

Failing brand

What’s more, the complexity of the apprenticeship system – coupled with ambiguous messaging and poor branding – is a barrier to potential apprentices, parents and employers – particularly smaller firms. We need a centralised approach to raising awareness among prospective degree apprentices, providing information about options and practicalities. Early intervention outreach must be coordinated, evidence-based and properly funded. And government should relax the rules around the apprenticeship levy to allow some of an estimated £1.28 billion of unspent funds to be used to improve careers advice and to promote degree apprenticeships.

But there is still the challenge that degree apprenticeships outputs are themselves ambiguous. The idea of promoting a broad appreciation of the benefits of degree apprenticeships in the current climate is baffling; apprentices’ rights to professional recognition, continued employment and a degree must become clearly navigable in order to move forward.

EPC calls for change

Today’s EPC report, Experience Enhanced, is the collective perspective of the UK’s engineering academic community, the culmination of a two-year project to assess policy and practice around degree apprenticeships. It highlights nearly 50 recommendations spanning four areas: ensuring the best possible learning experience and outcomes for apprentices; the need for closer collaboration between employers and learning providers like universities; the importance of building recognition as a professional engineer into the pathways of apprenticeships; and the financial sustainability of degree apprenticeships.

Degree apprenticeships might not be the silver bullet for all recruitment challenges where there’s a skills deficit, but they do bring the rigours of academic learning and knowledge together with the practical skills and behaviours of the workplace – a new breed of “supergrads”?

Guest blog: Does a career in engineering pay?

By Kate Webster, the Engineering Council

Engineering students at university are in the ideal place to learn and develop – encouraging them to become professionally registered puts them on a path to continue that development throughout their careers.

Despite the continuing skills shortage, not all engineering students go on to work in engineering, perhaps because of the high profile on campus of financial services and consulting firms, or a lack of information about what engineering roles are available. Among respondents to the Engineering Brand Monitor, pay was the second most important factor when deciding upon a career – the most important was it being something they were interested in. Yet only 20% of 11-19 year olds could accurately identify the broad salary range for graduate engineers, with three in five choosing a pay band that’s considerably lower than the average.

Professionally registered engineers earn higher average salaries in every industry sector and at all levels of seniority than those who’re not registered, according to a recent salary survey; the difference in the Chemical and Pharma/Medical sector is almost £12,000 a year. Importantly, registrants make a commitment to maintaining and enhancing their competence that both helps make them better engineers and ensures that employers, clients and the public can feel confident in their expertise.

Engineers looking to start their career need qualifications, credibility with employers, international mobility, access to development opportunities, contacts and networks. As they work towards achieving academic qualifications, professional registration can support them with all these aspects of employability, offering an independent assessment of their competence that can improve their career prospects and increase their earning potential. Achieving registration is simplest for those with accredited qualifications, but is open to any practising engineer who can demonstrate the required competence.

Joining one of the professional engineering institutions is a first step towards professional registration and brings its own benefits. Student membership is usually free and students can join more than one institution, if it’s relevant to their interests or area of study. Membership can offer exposure to careers in engineering and access to professional networks, supporting students in finding the right engineering field for them and securing a job. When a student/graduate engineer’s ready to think about professional registration, their institution will be able to support them and advise on the best way forward.

Working towards professional registration provides a framework for professional development and is a structured way to develop competence in areas including communication and inter-personal skills, management and leadership. These can be as important as technical engineering skills, particularly when working in inter-disciplinary teams. Registrants tell us that registration has increased their credibility, helped them gain promotion or win more business, and the commitment registrants make to work in an ethical, sustainable way is likely to become increasingly important as technology advances.

Encouraging your students to consider professional registration could help point them towards an career in engineering, give them a framework for lifelong learning and boost their earning potential. For more information, see the Engineering Council’s guide to making the transition from student to professional is available online (or in hard copy, from marketing@engc.org.uk).