Reflections on REF

As the dust settles on REF 2021, former EPC President, Prof Sarah Spurgeon, looks back at the process from her insider perspective as an Engineering sub-panel member and interdisciplinary advisor
Looking in the rear-view mirror
Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

REF 2021 is finally over, and the results are out. Whether we were involved as individual researchers, collating submissions for our institutions or involved directly in the assessment panels and sub-panels, we all have a moment to take breath before the next cycle commences.

For the whole REF process, the increased selectivity of outputs combined with a requirement to submit all staff with significant responsibility for research has impacted across all submissions. This meant that for Engineering, the category A headcount rose from 5,279 in 2014 to 7,750 in 2021, a massive 47%. For the Engineering sub-panel, REF 2021 saw another significant and specific change: four individual Engineering sub-panels in 2014 (12. Aeronautical, Mechanical, Chemical and Manufacturing Engineering, 13. Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Metallurgy and Materials, 14. Civil and Construction Engineering, and 15. General Engineering) were combined into one single sub-panel (12. Engineering) for REF 2021. This led to a significant decrease in the number of impact case studies submitted across Engineering (from 621 to 483, -22%) and a significant decrease in the number of submissions (from 138 to 88, -36%). 

A key driver for the move to a single sub-panel was to give a single picture of the health of the discipline of Engineering across the UK. This picture was harder to obtain previously when, for example, depending on the way in which Engineering units are constituted across different HEIs as either unified Engineering units or disciplinary units, this could impact whether teams in the same disciplinary area were submitted to one of the more themed sub-panels or to the General Engineering sub-panel. REF 2021 certainly succeeded in this aim, facilitating a perspective of Engineering impacts and environments across whole institutions in a unified manner. 

Who can fail to be impressed by statistics showing such a high level of overall quality of Engineering research, with 91% of outputs assessed as being at least internationally excellent, with over 87% of the volume-weighted impact results judged to have very considerable or outstanding reach and significance and with over 85% of the volume-weighted environment results judged to demonstrate vitality and sustainability conducive to producing research of internationally excellent or world-leading quality? 

Interdisciplinary research

The assessment of interdisciplinary research (IDR) has been another area of change for the 2021 exercise. An underpinning principle of REF is that all types of research and all forms of research output across all disciplines shall be assessed on a fair and equal basis including interdisciplinary and collaborative research. 

The independent review of REF 2014, chaired by Lord Stern, noted concerns within the research community regarding IDR where it was perceived to have been disadvantaged at assessment. The lower proportion of IDR submitted relative to what might have been expected suggested low confidence within the community of fair treatment for IDR. It is the case after all that the Units of Assessment (U0A) around which REF assessment is built are entirely discipline-based. From the outcomes of Lord Stern’s review, it was recommended that structures should be implemented to support submission and assessment of IDR in REF 2021.

Consequently, Professor Dame Athene Donald was appointed to Chair what was called the REF Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel (IDAP). This was an excellent choice as Dame Athene Donald is well known for her interdisciplinary research contributions as well of course for her absolute commitment to inclusion. It was perceived by IDAP that the main issues for the assessment of interdisciplinary research arise around output assessment. Interdisciplinary work underpinning impact case studies was perceived to have had no issues in REF 2014 while the Environment Statement provides an opportunity to discuss a unit’s approach to interdisciplinary research without including specific metrics. IDAP produced a clear definition of what interdisciplinary research was, and indeed what it was not, and how it might be distinguished from a simple case of cross-referral. 

Champions or advisors

A further strand of work related to how the actual assessment should be carried out. Lord Stern had recommended champions but it was felt by IDAP that this did not convey the right message – interdisciplinary work should not need championing by individuals so much as to be judged on a level playing field. 

IDAP therefore recommended that each main panel should have a least one member with interdisciplinary research experience and each sub-panel should recruit at least two people identified as interdisciplinary advisors and for the Engineering sub-panel, I was one of the appointed interdisciplinary advisors. IDAP also decided that to support these main panel and sub-panel interdisciplinary advisors, networks should be established with whom IDAP would interact. It was felt that this network would provide a forum for discussion and support during the process of interdisciplinary research assessment.

These recommendations were made in 2019 and I can confirm that the network proposal worked extremely well initially. I had the opportunity to take part in network meetings across all main panels to discuss interdisciplinary research and to explore any boundaries between disciplines while developing a network of peers across a diverse community of units of assessment to support the assessment of interdisciplinary research in the Engineering sub-panel. 

Unfortunately, Covid hit and this networking could no longer continue as planned. Covid regulations did not facilitate networking in the same way and indeed all of those involved in the research assessment were busy not just with the assessment but also frequently with day jobs that had also became increasingly complex. So the aspiration with regard to networking around IDR which showed so much promise initially was greatly reduced in scope. I hope it will be able to develop to maturity in any future exercises.

IDAP stated that, for the purposes of REF, the definition of interdisciplinary research is that which is understood to achieve outcomes (including new approaches) that could not be achieved within the framework of a single discipline. Interdisciplinary research features significant interaction between two or more disciplines and may move beyond established disciplinary foundations in applying or integrating research approaches from other disciplines. 

Originality, significance and rigour

As for any output, disciplinary outputs were assessed against the generic criteria of originality, significance and rigour. In addition to this, IDAP provided guidance to sub-panels that originality and significance can be identified in one, some, or all of the constituent parts brought together in the work, or in their integration; they do not need to be demonstrated across all contributing areas or fields. This is important. It means that the originality does not need to be in, for example, an engineering method, but can be in the application of an established method into a new domain. 

In terms of observations on submissions to the Engineering sub-panel with respect to interdisciplinarity, the range of research disciplines was wide and there was extensive evidence of interdisciplinarity. Indeed, there was a welcome increase as we might have expected in the number of interdisciplinary outputs submitted. It was notable that there was inconsistent use of the IDR flag by HEIs. Some HEIs used the flag extremely liberally, whereas others didn’t flag any outputs as IDR. Some units may have left the decision with regard to the IDR flag with the individual academics who wrote particular outputs which again didn’t favour a consistent approach.

Accompanying statements

The 100-word statement that can accompany any output submitted to the Engineering sub-panel is a useful mechanism not just to assist panels in seeing the significance of an output but also to contextualise interdisciplinary research. 

For REF 2021, our Engineering sub-panel considered that the nature of the discipline was such that the significance of an output may not be fully evident within the output itself. They therefore invited factual information to be provided (maximum 100 words) that could include, for example, additional evidence about how an output had gained recognition, impacted the state of the art, led to further developments or had been applied. Some HEIs did not take advantage of this opportunity. If the 100-word statement continues into future exercises I would encourage all colleagues to use it and to apply the rules for use, otherwise the information will be ignored.

Calibration 

Calibration across sub-panel members, different sub-panels as well as main panels is an important factor in the research assessment process. For outputs, impact case studies and environmental statements, extensive calibration took place, and this calibration was particularly important for interdisciplinary research. 

In all cases the main panel calibration sample included items from across all the sub-panels, including a selection of interdisciplinary outputs. These items were then also included in our own sub-panel calibration exercises. 

This really ensured there was a shared understanding of standards for assessment across the process. There is a general view that the material covered by all the sub-panels in main panel B is becoming ever more interdisciplinary, and this makes it far easier to recognise quality across multiple disciplinary boundaries. 

An Engineering taxonomy

In terms of output allocation, the Engineering sub-panel used an extensive taxonomy that was published in the sub-panel working methods. To those of us involved in REF assessment for the Engineering sub-panel, I think mention of this taxonomy will cause us to smile for some time to come. 

It came about for the very best of reasons. The sub-panel started by merging together the areas described across the original four sub-panels from ref 2014 and then sought to merge this information into a coherent single taxonomy. This taxonomy was then taken back out for consultation to the Engineering community. This caused the taxonomy to grow again. 

With hindsight and probably as would be expected for a first attempt, this taxonomy wasn’t optimal and I’m sure it’s something that will be looked at for future Engineering research assessment. 

It became the means by which outputs were allocated and indeed the means by which interdisciplinary boundaries were identified. Sub-panel members took on different elements from within the taxonomy to define their own expertise whilst submitting units identified elements from the taxonomy to associate with an output. This information was used to algorithmically allocate outputs to individuals ensuring outputs with interdisciplinary aspects were allocated to the right individuals. 

I think most of us would agree that interdisciplinarity is inherent in Engineering and it was felt and found that the sub-panel had the appropriate membership and processes in place to enable us to robustly assess most of the interdisciplinary work using the taxonomy to ensure outputs were allocated to the right individual sub-panellists. 

The fact that we had the right expertise is reinforced by sub-panel data showing that only 442 outputs were cross-referred out of sub-panel 12 from a total of 18,282 outputs (less than 3%). In fact, 324 of these outputs were cross-referred to other sub-panels in response to a direct request from the submitting HEI and only a further 120 (less than 1% of the total number of outputs) were cross-referred to provide additional guidance for assessment of interdisciplinary research. 

Reflections

The outcomes for Engineering as reported earlier were fantastic. Interdisciplinary research was found to have become mainstream in our sub-panel as we would expect. Perhaps disappointingly, there is no specific data on interdisciplinary research as a result of the sub-panel assessment; issues with inconsistent use of the interdisciplinary flag by the higher education institutions were unhelpful in this regard. 

The taxonomy, with further work, could be another approach to deliver this in the future. The sub-panel received outputs spanning the full breadth of Engineering, ranging from the highly theoretical to applied output, but we observed a high proportion of theoretical outputs were submitted. Does this indicate that interdisciplinary research outputs are still perceived as a greater risk in terms of assessment when compared with a strong theoretical paper with a robust 100-word statement supporting wider application in potentially interdisciplinary contexts?

I’ve commented on the decrease in the number of submissions and the number of impact studies. For the Engineering community, we should continue to ask whether the changes for REF 2021 have inadvertently negatively impacted smaller units. 

For REF 2021 the minimum number of impact case studies to be submitted per unit of assessment was two. In general, the number of impact case studies is one case study plus one further case study for each 14.99 FTE in a UoA. This rule applies for the first 105 FTE returned in a UoA. After that one further case study is required per 50 FTE returned. The word limit for the environment statement is given in Table 1. The size of different units of assessment to the Engineering panel varied from less than 10 to more than 400. 

A hypothetical unit with 10 FTE would need to submit two impact case studies and would have 8,000 words to describe the research environment. Another hypothetical unit with 300 staff would need to submit 12 case studies and have 21,600 words to describe the research environment. So, for an increase in staff numbers of 30x, the required number of impact studies increases by 6x and the research environment description increases by 2.7x. 

This has the potential unintended consequence of giving larger UoAs a better chance to be selective than smaller UoAs have. This may be a consequence of an assessment that seeks to assess, among other things, vitality and sustainability. Further analysis is certainly required of the impact of nonlinearity in reporting versus size of UoA which I am sure EPC will be looking at in greater depth in the coming period.

Number of category A FTE staffWord limit for environment template
1-19.998,000
20-29.998,800
30-39.999,600
40-49.9910,400
50-69.9911,200
70 or more12,000 plus 800 further words per additional 20 FTE

Table 1 Word limits for the unit-level environment template

Another area for the future which EPC has already highlighted in its response to the Future Research Assessment Programme consultation is the need for REF submission systems to be evolved to support processes around interdisciplinary research identification and allocation for assessment, particularly for large sub-panels like Engineering. There are good algorithmic and data analysis approaches to help with this and such innovations may help us in collecting robust data particularly on interdisciplinary outcomes. 

In conclusion, we should acknowledge that the colleagues on our Engineering sub-panel did a fabulous job for our community in what were unusually difficult circumstances. We can all have confidence in the outcomes.

Professor Sarah Spurgeon OBE FREng is Head of Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at University College London, a member of the EPC Research, Innovation and Knowledge Transfer (RIKT) Committee, and a Sub-panel 12 Engineering Member and Interdisciplinary adviser for REF 2021.

Why communication is a critical tool for any engineer

People rarely choose engineering because of their communication skills, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a vital part of the tool box. Professor Lucy Rogers explains.
Image by Anete Lusina, Pexels.com

Do you remember what made you choose your career? For me, I liked maths and physics, logic and problem-solving. Engineering was an obvious choice.

To me, a spade was a spade. I wasn’t very good at picking up on the social skills that seemed to come naturally to many. I wanted to know how machines worked, not how people worked.  I disliked parties and mingling with those I didn’t know. The “no seminars discussing the deeper meaning of a poem” and the “no essays giving your opinion on a character’s thought processes” also made engineering more appealing.

Job descriptions led me to believe that if I put my head down, did the work and wrote a report about it, then I would be rewarded and acknowledged for my efforts.

I was wrong.

As a young graduate engineer, I noticed that I wasn’t getting acknowledged for my efforts. People didn’t quite seem to understand what I was saying. I wasn’t getting the exciting opportunities.

I remember one day my boss’s boss bumping into me on the shop floor. He was tall, fizzing with energy and wearing very polished, non-PPE black shoes. He asked what I was doing. 

My brain exploded. What should I say? That I was actually on my way to the toilet? No, not that. I could tell him about the experiments, the reports, the meetings, the good the bad … and as I stumbled and mumbled and muttered my way through a very incoherent explanation, I could see his eyes glaze over – and he rushed off on his way. I never got to speak to him again.

I realised communication was a critical skill for an engineer. 

Why think if we can’t share our thoughts?

Why work on small projects when, if we work together, we can work on the bigger ones?

Why have the best idea in the world, if the world won’t listen to us?

Over the last twenty years I have sought out opportunities to learn and improve my communication skills – from public speaking and storytelling to cartooning and stand-up comedy.

These improvements helped me become a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and of the IMechE. And they also led to other opportunities – such as being a BBC TV judge on Robot Wars and to becoming a RAEng Visiting Professor of Engineering: Communication and Creativity at Brunel University, London.

As an independent innovation consultant, and as a Visiting Professor, I have seen many presentations and read many reports. I have seen why the public’s perception of engineers is that we’re not great at communicating. This is also confirmed in industry – with the IET’s Skills survey saying that they find it difficult to find people with good technical AND communication skills.

I am pleased to see that the Engineering Council’s AHEP 4 has strengthened its commitment to communication skills, by adding in:

M17: Communicate effectively on complex engineering matters with technical and non-technical audiences, evaluating the effectiveness of the methods used.

M16: Function effectively as an individual, and as a member or leader of a team. Evaluate effectiveness of own and team performance.

Communication, is just a skill. Sadly, it is not rocket science – as I am sure, if it were, that would appeal more to many of us.

As engineers, we know we can learn technical skills.

Communication is just the operating system for humans.

We can learn that.

We have to learn that.

Over my engineering career, I have come up with three main principles with regards to communication skills:

Visibility

If you are not seen or heard, your work will not be seen or heard.

Clarity

Share your knowledge clearly and be succinct. Tell your audience only what they need to hear.

Insight

Understand what your audience needs to know by listening and using feedback.

Focus on these and…

When we speak, they will listen. 

When we explain, they will understand. 

And when we motivate, they will be inspired.


Prof Lucy Rogers PhD CEng FREng FIMechE (@DrLucyRogers) is an independent innovation consultant and RAEng Visiting Professor at Brunel University, London. She has distilled her communications knowledge into online, self-guided courses that she is licensing to universities to assist with the new AHEP4 rules. More details at www.comscourses.com or contact her at support@comscourses.com

EPC responses to OfS Consultations

After an opinion-gathering exercise among our members, the EPC has published its responses to two consultations from the Office for Students, summarised here by Chief Executive Johnny Rich. They are on proposed changes to Student Outcomes and TEF (use the links to find the full responses).

These are among the most important regulatory changes we have faced since the formation of the OfS and the EPC felt it was important to respond comprehensively. There was a third consultation on metrics, which the EPC considered outside the scope of its representative role.

Student Outcomes

  • We are concerned the proposals will damage access. This is important to the EPC as a greater diversity of engineers is good for those who enter the profession, good for engineering and good for society.
  • Contrary to the aim of raising standards, the proposals may lead to grade inflation.
  • Rather than raising educational standards through incentives based on outcomes, the need for outcomes may become an excuse for admitting the students who need education least to get good outcomes. This would drive down standards. 
  • The proposals are incompatible with the forward-looking and flexible model of HE envisaged by the government in its proposals for the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. As such, the proposals are not fit for the future. 
  • The proposals will duplicate or sometimes be at odds with other regulatory frameworks for certain courses, such as Engineering which is subject to strict regulations for accreditation. 
  • The proposals estimate the value of higher education too narrowly.
  • The proposals will damage efforts to diversify engineering, particularly in terms of gender balance, but other characteristics too. 
  • By using a poor proxy measure for educational quality, rather than attempting to measure learning gain, the proposals value outcomes that are beyond universities’ direct control over the standard of the education provided.
  • By seeking to penalise universities for offering courses with supposedly poor outcomes, the proposals may inadvertently make courses with good outcomes, such as Engineering, less viable.
  • The proposals may discourage educational innovation.
  • The proposals create incentives in opposition to the government’s mission to level up. This is a policy area where higher education – and Engineering, in particular – can effect real change, but only if they are not penalised for doing so. 

Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)

Many of the concerns above also related to the TEF proposals, but there were also a number of other key points to make.

  • Given the proposals for student outcomes baselines, it is not clear what distinctive purpose TEF serves in spotlighting teaching excellence. 
  • We are unconvinced that a system of badges is a sufficiently nuanced representation of an institution’s reputation, which should be viewed in terms of good and bad, but in terms of having a reputation FOR something. The proposals are too reductive to achieve that.
  • The proposals for TEF are not likely to improve its previous poor record of usefully informing student choice. In order to be informative it would need to be more granular, but a more detailed TEF would be less appealing and therefore less useful.
  • There’s a similar inherent contradiction in the proposed periodic cycle of the TEF exercise: in order to be useful it needs to be frequent, but in order for its useful to come close to the burden involved, it needs to be infrequent.
  • The 3-band Gold, Silver, Bronze approach to TEF is unhelpfully heuristic. That is to say, a TEF band does not provide anyone with good information, but rather the band is used *instead of* good information. 
  • The proposed fourth band – “requires improvement” – serves no positive purpose as it undermines reputation without providing any information about what improvement might be required.
  • This is particularly damaging as the TEF band will be institution-wide, even when an institution may have pockets of excellence whose staff, students and graduates will be unjustly tarred with the same brush of inadequacy. 
  • By failing to represent the experience of international students properly, the TEF exercise will misrepresent excellence in certain parts of the sector – such as Engineering courses, in particular, where they comprise an especially significant proportion of students. 
  • We are concerned that the proposals will further undermine foundation years – a critical pathway to access and successful student outcomes, particularly in Engineering. This is especially troubling when foundation year funding is under threat from government proposals.
  • Student insights is important, but they need the framework to provide points of reference so they can be comparative and useful. 
  • We are concerned that the proposals both for TEF and student outcomes will be unfair to smaller specialist providers in Engineering and other disciplines. 

The EPC calls on the Office for Students to abandon its regulation plans for student outcomes and instead to adopt measures of ‘learning gain’ and ‘value added’.

In both consultation responses, the EPC was clear that these would give a more direct and useful measure of educational quality – both baselines and excellence – and would incentivise desired outcomes rather than unintended consequences. Learning gain is not easy to measure, but as the hundreds of pages of these consultations demonstrate, it’s not as if the OfS has found an easier or better alternative. 

Welcome to the Engineering Ethics Toolkit

EPC President Prof Mike Sutcliffe introduces an ambitious new initiative to ensure engineering education is a force for good.

Engineering can have significant impact on society and the environment, both positive and negative.  Harnessing the power of engineering to build a sustainable society that works for everyone require us to navigate complexity, uncertainty and challenging ethical issues.

Understanding ethical issues and behaving in an ethical manner underpins other behaviours such as inclusivity and sustainability, ensuring that individual practitioners, professions and organisations are globally responsible. To maximise positive impact these behaviours must become instinctive – golden threads running through everything that engineers think and do.

The EPC Board considered its own ethical responsibility – including representing our members’ views, supporting good practice and as an organisation – at its retreat in January 2020.  This led to the clear action for the EPC to promote engineering ethics more proactively and adopt clear ethical positions.  A key aspect of this is enabling the embedding of ethical best practice into the UK engineering higher education curriculum through creation of an ‘Engineering Ethics Toolkit’.

There is growing advocacy for bringing engineering ethics to the fore in engineering programmes – alongside technical skills – as we equip future engineers with the skills and mindset they need to succeed.  At the policy level, this is evident in three general areas:

  1. The UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence and Commitment (UK-SPEC; 4th edition) and accreditation bodies identifying ethics as one of the core learning outcomes and competencies in accreditation documents;
  2. The inclusion of more descriptive competencies that expand on the understanding and practical application engineering ethics; and 
  3. The Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes in engineering (AHEP, 4th edition) standards reflecting the importance of societal impact in engineering.

Today we are pleased to launch the first milestone in the development of the EPC’s Engineering Ethics toolkit – a range of case studies and supporting articles to help engineering educators integrate ethics content into their teaching.

Today we are pleased to launch the first milestone in the development of the EPC’s Engineering Ethics toolkit

This will allow engineering students to be able to identify ethical issues, exercise ethical thinking and use ethical judgement within their projects and coursework.  

Producing this first phase of the toolkit has been a fabulous team effort – the high priority placed on creating this exemplified by remaining on track and producing a high-quality resource despite the challenges faced from Covid-19.  Everyone has done an amazing job. 

This would not have been possible without the generosity and support of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Engineering Council with whom they are partnering.  As chair, Raffaella Ocone (Herriot Watt) is doing a wonderful job of guiding us – getting us off to a flying start with her previous trailblazing work on embedding ethics into the curriculum. And Sarah Jayne Hitt (formerly NMiTE) is doing an absolutely fabulous job of keeping us focussed, on track and producing high-quality resources informed by best practice.    

This achievement is a wonderful example of how, as engineers, we work most effectively when we work together to design effective solutions – a team I enjoy working with and am proud to be a part of.

We hope you find these resources for embedding ethics into the curriculum useful.  Do let us know how you get on and keep an eye out as we continue to expand these resources into a more comprehensive toolkit for engineering educators.

Inspiring tomorrow’s engineers

Following her appearance at our ‘Engineering engineering’ event in July, we were keen to get Dr Hillary Leevers, CEO of EngineeringUK, to share her views on the power of outreach.

Hillary Leevers
Hillary Leevers: “It’s vital we take an open and experimental approach to developing outreach, testing content and delivery with target audiences, and, ideally, involving them in the planning.”

It’s our ambition at EngineeringUK to inform and inspire young people and grow the number and diversity of tomorrow’s engineers to meet the needs of the UK now and in the future.

And we’re very clear that achieving this ambition requires the concerted, collective effort of organisations and individuals with a shared interest in ensuring that all young people can make an informed choice about whether to pursue an engineering career.

Our analysis of the annual Engineering Brand Monitor shows that young people who know more about what engineers do are more likely to perceive the profession positively and to consider a career in engineering. Furthermore, young people attending a STEM careers activity in the past 12 months were over 3 times more likely to consider a career in engineering than those who had not.

Yet, even pre-pandemic, only about a quarter of 11- to 19-year-olds surveyed reported having attended such an activity and we know that careers experiences have been limited over the pandemic.

Worryingly, nearly half of young people surveyed said they know little or almost nothing about what engineers do and many of them see engineering as complicated and difficult as well as dirty. Beyond that, while key influencers of young people hold positive views about engineering, fewer than half of STEM secondary school teachers and under a third of parents are confident in giving engineering careers advice.

There is therefore a need to work more effectively to ensure that all young people, and their influencers, have a good understanding of the breadth and value of modern engineering and how to get into it. Outreach has an important role to play in this, but we must ensure that it works for the digitally engaged young people of today, especially those from groups that are under-represented in the engineering workforce.

It’s vital we take an open and experimental approach to developing outreach, testing content and delivery with target audiences, and, ideally, involving them in the planning. 

Taking an evidence-based approach to outreach includes identifying key messages that resonate with young people. As an example, our surveys have shown for many years that ‘having an impact’ and ‘being valued’ are important to young people when deciding upon a career, research last summer also found that the pandemic had made job security and availability more important to them

STEM outreach should therefore convey the wide-ranging societal contributions that engineers make and the certainty of future engineering workforce needs, for example, supported by the government’s investments in infrastructure and for net zero

With 100s of organisations delivering STEM engagement, we must work together to improve our approach to designing, delivering, and evaluating activities, as well as sharing our learnings and coordinating our work with one other.

That’s why EngineeringUK is proud to have been invited to deliver the Tomorrow’s Engineers Code which gathered 140 signatories (including HEIs) in its first 9 months, all pledging to work together to increase the collective impact of our engineering-inspiration activities and ultimately the number and diversity of young people choosing engineering. 

STEM outreach efforts must focus on measuring and increasing the impact of activity as well as its reach. As a community, we must cultivate a greater understanding of how engagement activities can affect positive change through robust research and a shared evidence base. 

There are of course difficulties in evaluating the impact of outreach activities targeted at 11–14-year-olds on, for example, graduate entries. As an example, The Big Bang Fair supported by hundreds of organisations and orchestrated by EngineeringUK and which by 2019 welcomed 80,000 visitors, would need up to 10 years to see impacts on graduate entries. Nevertheless, our in-house and independent evaluations have shown that the Fair helps to inspire young people into engineering and provides them with information on how to get there. This evaluation also identifies how we can improve so we can iterate year on year and share our learnings. 

STEM outreach works within a much wider eco-system that impacts on a young person’s choices. So, while we know that knowledge of engineering is a limiting factor, it is one of many, including opportunities to progress in key subjects, specialist teachers, confidence and so on. It could be that we make progress in one area – knowledge or appeal of engineering – but that other elements, such as supply of specialist teachers, limit progression.

We’ve developed and published an impact framework to help describe this system, and are using it to help us articulate the changes we are trying to achieve and evaluate against them – and we are sharing it in the hope that it helps other organisations do the same. 

It’s fair to say that the engineering community needs to work harder than ever to ensure that engineering is accessible to this generation of young people – for their own life chances and so that we have a diverse and insightful workforce that we need to innovate, improve societal and economic resilience and environmental sustainability.

While STEM outreach is only one part of the system that will deliver this, I am convinced that the renewed community emphasis on working together to deliver impact alongside reach will achieve the results we seek.

‘Engineering Engineering: A Provocation’ Webcast Summary

Prof Kel Fidler CEng HonFIET FREng, former Vice Chancellor of Northumbria University and former Chair of the Engineering Council, has published a new paper which seeks to challenge assumptions and practice around Engineering higher education and the talent pipeline. The EPC is grateful to him for inviting us to share his paper with our members.

The paper itself, titled Engineering Engineering: A Provocation, offers Kel’s personal perspective and it does not represent the views of the EPC. Some of our members may agree with it wholeheartedly. Others may want to take issue with his findings and recommendations – but no one can reasonably deny that these are discussions worth having.

As his polemical paper report makes clear, all is not roses in the garden of Engineering. We have the interlinked challenges of too little diversity among engineers and too few engineers to meet the social, environmental and economic needs of the future.

Some of our best efforts to resolve these challenges have not yet created the change we want to see, and so it is right to reflect on what more – or what else – we might do.

As anyone who knows him would expect, Kel has not held back in this ‘provocation’. Some people may disagree with his diagnosis of the problems and many will no doubt disagree with some of his proposed solutions, but that, surely, is the point of a provocation?

As the voice of Engineering academics, the EPC shall hold its peace for the time being, but we welcome a no-holds-barred debate about what we can do better and, as consensus emerges, we will do our best to support and disseminate positive change. Kel’s contribution is intended to get the stone rolling down the mountain and, for that, we are grateful to him and we are delighted to encourage the ongoing discussion.

During the ‘Engineering Engineering: A Provocation‘ webcast, each topic was addressed by leading experts on the issue, chaired by outgoing EPC President Prof Colin Turner. These included:

• Elizabeth Donnelly, Chief Executive, Women’s Engineering Society

• Hilary Leevers, Chief Executive, Engineering UK

• Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Manager, The Science Media Centre

• Prof Mike Sutcliffe, Deputy Dean, TEDI-London, and EPC President-Elect.

In particular, the event aimed to examine four themes: the role of outreach in promoting engineering, how we might attract more women into engineering, the public perception of engineering and the distinction between design engineering and engineering science.


CALL FOR CONTRIBUTIONS: The Crucible Project – Advancing the Industry-Academia Agenda

During the course of the 2020 Annual Congress, Industry & Academia: Supercharging the Crucible, members explored the interface between industry and academia and some of the challenges to developing the relationship between industry and academia. This highlighted five areas of mutual interest:

  • Universities’ and businesses’ shared role in regional development
  • Collaborating with industry for teaching and learning
  • Knowledge exchange
  • Research
  • Graduate employability and recruitment

The EPC now wants to build on this by launching the Crucible Project, an initiative to help our members build better industry links by sharing experiences and developing resources for all EPC members to access. We are planning to hold an online Industry-Academia event, featuring a diverse range of case studies of innovative and engaging collaborations between academics and industry, on 16th February 2022 and to produce a toolkit (or a series of toolkits) which members can access from the EPC website.

EPC members are invited to submit case studies, in whatever form, on the above areas of interest. We would especially welcome case studies created collaboratively between industry and academia partners. If you would like to get involved, please register your interest here.

The deadline for the call for contributions is November 28th.

Please also contact your Industrial Advisory Board or those within your university that deal with engineering industry collaboration and KTPs. 

Engineering Professors’ Council welcomes Professor Mike Sutcliffe as new President

Professor Mike Sutcliffe is the new President of the Engineering Professors’ Council, the representative organisation of UK engineering academics.

Prof Sutcliffe, who is Deputy Dean at TEDI-London, takes over from Prof Colin Turner, Interim Dean of Learning Enhancement at Ulster University, whose two-year term of office has come to an end.

Having chaired the EPC’s Engineering Education, Employability and Skills Committee, Prof Sutcliffe was elected as President-Elect in 2020 and has served a year as Vice President.

He was instrumental in leading much of the EPC’s influential work on degree apprenticeships, a topic he had already become expert in when helping to establish the initial Degree Apprenticeship Programme at Kingston University, where he served as Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of Science, Engineering and Computing.

Prior to that he has also worked as Head of the School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science at the University of Manchester, where he achieved global top 25 status in QS World Rankings and a top 3 position in the UK in REF 2014.

Professor Mike Sutcliffe commented:

“It’s a great privilege to take over the Presidency of the EPC, which is a unique voice for engineering academics in higher education, in the engineering sector, in government and beyond. It brings our community together not only to ensure we are heard, but also to share best practice and work together to improve engineering education.

“This is a vital time for our members who are facing up to difficult issues in higher education while standing on the frontline of economic, social and environmental challenges. Engineers are the problem-solvers and we shall be the keyworkers of the recovery. The EPC has big plans and will play our part.

“I would like to convey my profound thanks to Colin Turner for his service at President. He leaves the organisation stronger and more influential than ever and with a clear sense of purpose.”

Prof Turner said:

“It has been a huge honour to serve as the EPC’s President. We have achieved so much over the past two years under difficult circumstances, but there is always more to do. I’m delighted to leave the EPC in Mike’s capable hands and I look forward to serving as his deputy.”

Prof Helen Atkinson, former EPC President, awarded a Damehood

Dame Professor Helen Atkinson CBE FREng, PVC of Cranfield University and President of the EPC 2011-2013

We are delighted and proud that Professor Helen Atkinson CBE, FREng, President of the Engineering Professors’ Council 2011-13, has been made a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2021.

Cranfield University’s Professor Helen Atkinson CBE, FREng has been made a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2021 for services to engineering and education.

The full citation issued by Buckingham Palace states:

“Helen Atkinson is one of the UK’s foremost engineering leaders. She was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Cranfield University in 2017, with responsibility for the School of Aerospace, Transport and Manufacturing. She has made a tremendous impact in this role, cultivating key strategic partnerships with major industrial companies.

“She has been a committed Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering since 2007, serving variously as Vice President, Trustee and Chair of its Education and Skills Committee between 2012 and 2017. Most recently, she has made a vital impact through chairing the oversight group for the Academy’s ‘This is Engineering’ campaign to encourage more young people into engineering.

“She has had roles with government Foresight Panels, HEFCE, EPSRC, IET, National Council for Universities and Business, and the Strategic Facilities Advisory Board of the Royce Institute. She is a leading role model and advocate for women in STEM. She was the first woman President of the UK Engineering Professors’ Council in its 50-year history.”

Helen says: “I was utterly surprised and delighted when I received the news. This is a huge honour. For someone from my background, with both parents leaving school at 16 and as the first in my family to go to university, this is a most amazing thing. 

I really want to acknowledge the huge role the Engineering Professors’ Council has played in my career. I started out as an academic at Sheffield City Polytechnic as then was (now Sheffield Hallam) and then at Sheffield University. One of the professors there accidentally left a piece of paper by the photocopier about the Engineering Professors’ Council and I remember thinking ‘That looks interesting’.

I got involved in the Committee [now called the Board] when I was a Professor in the Engineering Department at Leicester University. I was really struck by the fact that even though the Department had strong demand for its undergraduate places, the Head of Department said ‘There is no money to buy the equipment for teaching’. I took a proposal to the EPC Committee to set up a piece of work to investigate, dispassionately and objectively, the real cost of teaching engineering students and teaching them well. This is, of course, a complex question. We drew together a working group and commissioned some consultants to help us to understand the way university finance models were operating. The Engineering Technology Board (as then was) helped with the costs. A number of universities agreed to be case studies for the investigation, across a range of types of institution. I chaired the working group and am immensely grateful for the wonderful and wise support I had from EPC colleagues.

In terms of my own development, this was the first time I had really had an opportunity to get my head round the way university finances worked and the different models universities used to flow through funds received from HEFCE to departments. Although the way university finance works has moved on, this experience has stood me in incredibly good stead now I am a Pro-Vice Chancellor.

We produced a careful and balanced report which I know was drawn on by HEFCE to support its consideration around the funds for Engineering teaching during that period. As Chair of the Working Group I was very determined we should take a national view representing all types if institution. The thinking I developed then flowed into my Presidency of the EPC a few years later.

I was very surprised to be encouraged to stand for election as President of the EPC. I was even more surprised when Fiona Martland [the EPC Executive Director at the time] stood up to say at the AGM that I was the first woman President in the 50-year history of the EPC and its forerunner bodies.

What I knew was that the EPC was such a good body to be part of – it draws together academics right across the sector – all of whom have a passion for encouraging the next generation of engineers.  

During my period as president we worked in conjunction with other groups to ensure the impact of UK Border Agency changes on engineering in HE was fully highlighted – engineering departments were second only to business and administration in their recruitment of overseas students, particularly for MSc courses, bringing around £750 million a year at that time into the economy. In addition, we ensured that the voice of HE engineering was heard in the school curriculum reforms led by the DfE (e.g. with Maths A-levels).

A key theme of my presidency was directing attention to the needs of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales at a time of considerable turbulence for funding in England and with the Scottish independence debate. In addition, the EPC was cited 11 times in a House of Lords Enquiry Report into STEM in HE. Many of these citations were associated with a national project on the employment of engineering graduates which I instigated and led in collaboration with four other universities. This work originated because I wanted to understand why, when the nation was saying there was a shortage, some engineering graduates were unemployed six months after graduation. My involvement in that work really helped me to put myself in the shoes of students applying for engineering jobs and the whole careers landscape.

The experience I gained through my involvement with the EPC provided a strong foundation for my chairing of the Royal Academy of Engineering Standing Committee on Education and Training for five years and now in chairing the multi-million pound Royal Academy of Engineering ‘This is Engineering’ social media campaign to encourage more young people to consider engineering as a career.

We have now had over fifty million views of the videos (see the ‘This is Engineering’ YouTube Channel) and with more or less equal numbers of girls and boys. I know a number of university engineering departments are contributing to the costs of that campaign. I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep appreciation. It is in all our interests to ensure engineering is seen as a vibrant, exciting career and one where you really can change the world.” 

The EPC is immensely proud of Helen and we congratulate her wholeheartedly.


We would also like to publicly congratulate another esteemed EPC member, Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, Director at the Centre for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Girton College, who has received an OBE for services to the COVID-19 Response.

Dr Fitzgerald was called upon in Spring 2020 to help with the SAGE Environmental Modelling Group. He co-authored the CIBSE Emerging from Lockdown guidance, which included advice on ventilation in buildings.

He is also serving on a range of other government bodies as part of the response to COVID-19, such as the DCMS Venues Steering Group, the Science Board to the Events Research Programme (which included the 2021 events at the Circus Nightclub in Liverpool and FA Cup Final), and the Aerosol Generating Procedures panel.

Engineering Engineering: a provocation

A recording of this event is now available to view at Recent events (epc.ac.uk). A new paper which seeks to challenge assumptions and practice around Engineering higher education and the talent pipeline was presented by Prof Kel Fidler CEng HonFIET FREng, former Vice Chancellor of Northumbria University and former Chair of the Engineering Council.

The EPC is grateful to him for inviting us to share his paper with our members in advance of the webinar we will be hosting on Tuesday 6th July 2021 which will follow up on some of the issues he raises with Prof Fidler himself and a panel of experts. (Click to attend.)

The paper itself, titled Engineering Engineering: a provocation, offers Kel’s personal perspective and it does not represent the views of the EPC. Some of our members may agree with it wholeheartedly. Others may want to take issue with his findings and recommendations – but no one can reasonably deny that these are discussions worth having.

Few can boast so rare a pedigree of accomplishments in Engineering higher education in the UK as Prof Fidler. And, having scaled the heights, there are few people better placed to take an overview of whether we’re doing well enough at what really matters.

As his polemical paper report makes clear, all is not roses in the garden of Engineering. We have the interlinked challenges of too little diversity among engineers and too few engineers to meet the social, environmental and economic needs of the future.

Some of our best efforts to resolve these challenges have not yet created the change we want to see, and so it is right to reflect on what more – or what else – we might do.

As anyone who knows him would expect, Kel has not held back in this ‘provocation’. Some people may disagree with his diagnosis of the problems and many will no doubt disagree with some of his proposed solutions, but that, surely, is the point of a provocation?

As the voice of Engineering academics, the EPC shall hold its peace for the time being, but we welcome a no-holds-barred debate about what we can do better and, as consensus emerges, we will do our best to support and disseminate positive change. Kel’s contribution is intended to get the stone rolling down the mountain and, for that, we are grateful to him and we are delighted to encourage the ongoing discussion.


Please feel free to comment below or in the Engineering Academics Network LinkedIn group.