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.

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.

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.

New Approaches to Engineering HE: The Six Facets

The EPC and IET are delighted to launch six case study examples for each of the six new approaches. We believe this proves that the required changes can be achieved – are already being achieved – and that by taking their lead, other institutions can be inspired to come up with new approaches of their own. Download the New Approaches Case Studies. or view the press statement.

New Approaches to Engineering Higher Education is on ongoing initiative that the EPC is running in partnership with the IET, with Professor John Perkins presiding as Chair. The aim is to encourage innovation in the sector’s approaches to policy, pedagogy and practice.

The initiative was launched in May 2017 at a landmark conference held at the IET in London on innovative approaches to the teaching of engineering in universities in the UK and globally.

One year on, the EPC hosted a round table meeting, at which the EPC, IET and senior HE stakeholders – including several vice-chancellors – met to take soundings on what we are calling ‘the Six Facets’ of innovative engineering higher education.

In the Autumn of 2018, we hosted a further round table of stakeholders with a national policy perspective. Chaired by IET Chief Executive Nigel Fine and hosted by Stephen Metcalfe MP, Government Envoy for the Year of Engineering, the workshop was an opportunity for MPs, leading industry figures and academics to talk through some of the challenges that need to be addressed in order to create a successful engineering skills pipeline between schools, universities and industry that suits the needs of businesses, educators, students and the UK as a whole. A summary of the main points raised as well as recommendations for policymakers, industry and academia to take on board that were put forward in the meeting is available here.

The Six Facets are common themes drawn from the papers presented to the New Approaches conference (the proceedings of which can be read here) that address fundamental problems: skills shortages; the shifting nature of engineering, the workforce and the demography of the student population; promoting inclusion and diversity.

While the EPC isn’t seeking to impose the Six Facets on anyone – that isn’t our role – we have identified these as key indicators of an innovative and adaptive response to today’s challenges. Universities can use them as a marker by which to judge their progress and as an inspiration for further development.

The Six Facets

Incorporating creativity into engineering: To reflect developing industrial needs and to attract a broad range of applicants, engineering programmes should enhance and emphasise the creative and innovative nature of the work of engineers. Although maths and science are important, they are a necessary but not sufficient part of the required skill set.

Broaden the diversity of students: The image of engineering means that women and ethnic minorities are far less likely to apply to study it. The emphasis (and the perception in schools of an emphasis) on maths and physics as a requirement to study engineering at top engineering schools also restricts access to the subject. This is especially true in physics where the proportion of female students at A-level is particularly low. Opportunities to increase the diversity of engineering students by proactive steps to address the image of engineering and the barriers to entry should be explored.

A strong emphasis on project work: Students engage and are enthused by authentic and relevant engineering experiences. In engineering, a primary vehicle for this is the design project. However, it is not sufficient that these are only in the latter years once sufficient grounding in theory is achieved. They should be from day one and spread throughout the degree programme to develop skills and encourage active learning.

Industry engagement in design and delivery: It is vital to work with industry to frame the skills graduates need and highlight to students their relevance and importance. This is particularly important to encourage students to enhance their transferable and employability skills.

Experience of the workplace for students: The formation of the professional engineer is a process; one that involves education, training and experience. In an ideal world these are not separated. It is incumbent on academics and industry to work together to develop programmes that bridge the separation between university and work in a way that provides equal opportunities for all students, regardless of background and career aspirations.

Greater interdisciplinarity: Modern engineering challenges and the global issues that most enthuse our current cohort of students will not be solved by any one discipline, but instead by teams of engineers from across the disciplines and non-engineers, bringing together their skills and expertise to create innovative solutions. We must prepare out students for this with appropriate experiences, such as undertaking complex projects in interdisciplinary teams.


There has been a lot of support for the work of the EPC and IET so far and we will now be looking for  exemplars from across the sector. If your work exemplifies one or more of the Six Facets, please contact the Chief Executive with your thoughts.

Brexit impact in Engineering Higher Education

Updated 28/03/19

As the political crisis over Brexit continues in Parliament, an exclusive analysis by the Engineering Professors’ Council reveals that a cascade of effects – resulting simply from Brexit’s impact on engineering research – will deal a blow to the economy nationally and will hit certain regions even harder.

The analysis shows the critical role EU funding has in fuelling innovation through engineering research, which boosts industry at a regional level, which in turn drives the national economy. 

Engineering research in UK universities receives £877 million in EU-based grants and contracts and is the largest national recipient of such funding. Under current Brexit plans, the UK would no longer be eligible for these funds and even if they were directly replaced by funding from UK taxpayers, that would still not compensate for the loss of a ‘multiplier effect’, which, the EPC calculates, increases the value of international research revenue by a factor of 3.35 as well as providing soft benefits.

The EPC research briefing, deeper analysis and downloadable data exclusively for members is available here.

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Updated 30/1/17

Assuming Theresa May is able to stick to her intended timetable (the first hurdle of which is to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by the end of March 2017), the UK will cease to be a member of the EU in 2019.

The picture is getting clearer about what this may mean. In the meantime, there are far more questions than answers. So, to support its members, the EPC has tried to ask the questions that engineering in HE needs answered most urgently and to summarise what we know so far (if anything). Rather than repeat what you will no doubt have seen elsewhere, we have tried to focus specifically on concerns and opportunities for engineering in HE.

These questions are complex. Our answers have tried to be simple, but they may be simplistic. There may well be other questions that need asking and our answers will undoubtedly benefit from further comment.

We would be grateful if you would use the comments facility to pose further questions and share your own reflections, expertise and, in particular, real life experiences in relation to the issues raised.

 

How Brexit might affect UK students?

Will engineering students’ mobility be affected? For instance, will they still be able to participate in the Erasmus programme?

There is no immediate change to the UK’s participation in the Erasmus+ scheme, with guaranteed funds for applications in 2016 and 2017[i]. After that, however, a British exclusion from the scheme is, for the moment, highly likely[ii]. Other non-EU members – Norway and Switzerland – do have agreements to participate and the UK might broker a similar arrangement. However, there are costs to participating in the single market and both Norway and Switzerland pay a contribution to EU programmes on research and education. The Government has so far provided no indication that it would do the same.

Update 5/10/2016: A petition has been started to urge the Government to continue to participate in the Erasmus scheme after Brexit.

Update: 30/1/2017: In her speech Brexit on 17th January, Theresa May made it clear that she has no intention of ‘buying back’ into elements of EU membership. However, in the Q&A session in the Commons later the same day, she hinted that the UK might “pay into specific programmes” after all. On balance, it looks like she regards continued membership of the ERASMUS+ programme as something for the negotiating table and not one over which she will lose any sleep.

Will UK students be more inclined to study engineering abroad given the increasing costs of studying in the UK and potential damage to their international work prospects?

The increase in costs was a reality before Brexit with the rises in tuition fees in recent years. In other European countries (such as Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark), the tuition fees are, relatively speaking, extremely low compared to UK universities – sometimes they are even free – and many such courses are taught in English[iii]. Some data suggest there has been a rise in recent years in the number of UK students taking up these opportunities to study abroad, however the evidence is not conclusive.

Many international engineering companies, such as Rolls Royce, which have strong links with UK HE engineering departments and support high quality students’ placements, might consider developing their core business outside the UK. This could limit the number and quality of placements available in the future, and students might consider taking studies abroad in universities with stronger links with international companies.

However, if Brexit means UK students face higher fees to study abroad, they may be put off. They may choose to opt for UK courses even though the quality and range of placements may have been compromised.

Will international partnerships be affected? For example, will students be as able to do placements in international companies during their studies?

See above.

Will the employment prospects of UK engineering students be affected?

This will depend on the impact of Brexit on the wider economy and the engineering sector in particular. See below. (It also depends on the impact on the financial sector, which recruits a significant proportion of engineering graduates.)

Economic pressure hits the recruitment of entry-level staff first and hardest. Engineering firms may scale down recruitment or, in the case of larger businesses, they may move it to other European countries.

However, the skills shortages in engineering are such that engineering graduates may find their skills are still in sufficiently high demand to be largely unaffected by economic tides.

Since employment rates are to be used as a key metric for TEF, any impact on graduates may have significant repercussions for universities and academic departments too.

 

How Brexit might affect international students?

Will UK universities still be an attractive place to study engineering for international students?

Update 26/01/2017: in the light of May’s ‘Global Britain’ speech, delivered on the 17th January, there is a willingness to keep the UK as a “magnet for international talent”, and high-skilled immigration, whether to work or study, but with a strict control of the number of people coming to Britain from the EU. Free movement to Britain from Europe will not be guaranteed.

Beyond Erasmus (see above), there are no immediate changes planned to the funding of EU students studying in the UK. For now, the Government is saying that students who have started a course before August 2016 will have the eligibility for the duration of that course. There’s no word yet on what will happen in future[iv]. However, if EU nationals are in future treated on a par with other international students when it comes to fees, it would leave them facing far higher costs to study in the UK and they are unlikely to be entitled to student loans. It is hard to imagine how this could not act as a powerful disincentive.

Having said that, Brexit may offer new opportunities for non-EU students to study in the UK thanks to lower competition from their EU counterparts. The same may happen with non-EU staff[v], although some reports suggest that Brexit may mean that the UK is regarded in future by people from outside the UK – both EU and non-EU – as less tolerant and welcoming.

The current low value of the pound will make international fee levels relatively more affordable[vi], but conversely, it will also make salaries paid in sterling less attractive.

Update 5/10/2016: In her speech to the Conservative Party Conference yesterday, Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced major new restrictions on international students coming to the UK to study. She is not waiting for Brexit before imposing these new rules.

The proposal includes limiting the availability of student visas to those accepted on to “high-quality” courses, but it is not clear how that would be determined. One suggestion is that high performance in the TEF may be used, but, since the discipline-level TEF is unlikely before 2019, that would mean that for the next few years all disciplines across an institution would have to be treated as equal for the purposes of student visas – which might be very bad news for engineering departments.

Another suggestion is that the Government would simply apply a prejudicial judgement of quality based on, for example, membership of the Russell Group. The Government’s argument is that these measures will preserve the quality of the education that the UK ‘exports’ by only allowing the best institutions to do so. However, given that the stated intention is to reduce absolute student immigration, the logic is flawed and the effect will be to drive down numbers not drive up standards.

Whatever the arguments, restrictions on international student numbers may be very damaging to UK engineering departments because of the loss of high-quality applicants, funding and international relationships. It will also impact on the UK skills shortage which will be exacerbated if the UK has to rely on a home-grown supply of engineering graduates.

Ms Rudd has said that there will be a consolation on the proposals. The EPC will examine them in detail and respond forcefully on behalf of UK engineering departments which attract far more international students than most UK HE courses.

Update 11/10/2016: The Department for Education has now confirmed that EU students applying for university places in England in 2017/18 will continue to be eligible for student loans and grants, and entitled to home fee status for the duration of their course, even past the point that the UK leaves the EU.

Welsh Education Secretary Kirsty Williams has also confirmed that EU students applying for a place at a Welsh university for 2017/18 will continue to receive financial support.

Update 14/10/2016: The Scottish Government have also announced that EU students commencing their studies in 2017 will be entitled to complete their studies post-Brexit without a change in fees status.

Will students still be able to do placements in the UK as part of their studies?

The assumption has to be that, post-Brexit, European students would have to apply for a student visa like other foreign nationals, adding to the complexity and obstacles of studying in the UK and doing placements.

Theresa May’s track record on student visas when she was Home Secretary was that she regarded them as too easy a target for exploitation by illegal immigrants. There have been no announcements to suggest that she will be more sympathetic as PM.

 

How Brexit might affect courses in engineering disciplines?

Will UK engineering accreditation still have the same international recognition?

Currently, European recognition is possible across the European Union and the EEA (the European Economic area – the countries covered by agreements on free movement of people and trade)[vii] and international recognition outside Europe is guaranteed through the Engineering Council’s membership of the International Engineering Alliance[viii]. However, recognition of Professional Titles, and the right to work in the EU, can be denied if UK leaves EEA[ix].

In other words Brexit is unlikely to have any significant impact on the recognition of accreditation, but it will be worth keep a close watch.

 

How Brexit might affect academic staff in engineering (lecturers, researchers, other staff)?

How safe are the jobs of European staff at UK universities?

Update 26/01/2017: in the light of May’s ‘Global Britain’ speech, delivered on the 17th January, it is still unclear what the status of the EU staff already working in the UK will be, as stated in point 6 (Rights for EU nationals in Britain, and British nationals in the EU). However, free movement to Britain from Europe will not be guaranteed, in order to control immigration.

For now, there’s been no change to the rights and status of EU citizens working in the UK. Nationals from the European Economic Area (EEA) can get a permanent residence card if they have lived in the UK for a continuous period of 5 years[x].

For EU nationals who have been in the UK for less time than that, there are no guarantees, however key Brexit campaigners argued after before and after the Referendum that anyone legally resident in the UK before the Referendum should be given a right to remain. The Government has refused to commit to this, linking the issue to the right of British citizens currently in European countries to remain there.

Given skills shortages in the UK, even if there is no blanket agreement on EU nationals, it has to be supposed that academics in engineering would be well placed to be allowed to stay in the UK along with their families (if already resident here). Unmarried partners, however, may face a more awkward position.

How safe are the jobs of UK staff at European universities?

See above.

How will the recruitment and retention of staff from the European Union be affected?

On this question, there are no answers – only more questions. How will Brexit affect staff who have been living in the UK for less than 5 years (not eligible for a permanent resident card)? How will this affect new staff who come to the UK after the Referendum?

In the long term, the recruitment of EU staff will depend on the negotiations between UK and the European Union. At the heart of those negotiations will be whether the free movement of people can be uncoupled from access to trade freely with the EEA. If it cannot and the UK Government decides that access to the free market is a price worth paying for immigration control, then recruitment is likely to be restricted.[xi]

Academics and researchers in engineering will be regarded as more desirable immigrants than most, but even to have to talk in such terms illustrates the change that might take place.

Will British academics be as able to move to positions in European institutions?

That will depend on the outcome of Brexit negotiations, but unless an arrangement is made for the free movement of people, the process is likely to become more bureaucratic at the very least.

 

How Brexit might affect engineering research and innovation?

Will it be possible to secure ongoing research projects with European funds and European partners? And what are the risks for future research funding?

On the 13 of August 2016, Universities Minister Jo Johnson wrote an open letter to Madeleine Atkins (HEFCE President) to “reassure” the HE sector about the continuity of funding of Horizon 2020 projects[xii]. This was preceded by a Statement from BIS on the 28th June 2016 on higher education and research[xiii]. These announcements were prompted by a Treasury commitment made by the Chancellor Philip Hammond to guarantee EU funding beyond the date that the UK leaves the EU[xiv].

On the face of it, these commitments should be welcome news for the sector. However, in practice, they do not go very far. EU-funded research projects are almost always made to international consortia representing at least two EU nations. They are contractual arrangements setting out the term of the contract. Brexit should not normally affect the contract with a UK research partner as part of the consortium, even if they are the lead partner. There may be contractual provisions that, for example, state that the consortium partners must come from more than one EU nation. Brexit might then put the consortium in breach of the contract. Even then it is hard to see how the Treasury commitment might step in to protect the funding of a consortium that compromises non-UK partners.

The Treasury’s reassurance does not do anything to address the issues as reported to EPC by own members to the EPC – and by others to Scientists for EU[xv] and elsewhere – that suggest EU partners are more reticent about new research partnerships with UK universities or are even excluding UK partners from existing initiatives. Underwriting the funding for UK universities does not help non-UK partners and makes funding no easier to win.

Furthermore, the Treasury’s protection extends only to funding under Horizon 2020. In practice, that horizon is approaching fast and the period after Brexit has taken place and before funding is due to end anyway is not likely to be much more than a year anyway. The Treasury may have calculated that this is a commitment it can afford to make because it is unlikely ever to cost much, if indeed anything at all.

Nonetheless, it is comforting that The European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI) has expressed its support for UK engineering research, reaffirming a commitment to cooperation initiatives with UK members[xvi].

What European funding options will be available after Brexit?

Update 26/01/2017: in the light of May’s ‘Global Britain’ speech, delivered on the 17th January, the UK will no longer be a member of the single market. A new trade agreement will be negotiated, and participation in some specific European programmes will be sought. Point 10 (The best place for science and innovation) raises some hope for science, research, and technology initiatives, as the PM welcomes an agreement to continue to collaborate with EU in science and innovation.

As with Erasmus (see above), Switzerland and Norway, which are not members of the EU, can apply for Horizon 2020 funding and will probably continue that arrangement with whatever funding scheme replaces it. To qualify for this support, those nations contribute financially to the EU’s research funding. Theresa May has ruled out “buying back” into the benefits of the EU in the past, but in the Q&A in the Commons following her speech, she hinted that the UK might “pay into specific programmes”.

However, from a political perspective, if the UK is making large payments to the EU in order to participate, it is hard to see that as consistent with May’s interpretation of voters’ intentions as expressed in the Referendum. Also, full participation in the Horizon 2020 programme – or any similar successor – relies heavily on freedom of movement (which Norway and Switzerland allow). Being seen to have banned free movement is clearly going to be a red line for May in negotiations.

This issue appears to be one that May hopes to resolve at the negotiating table and, probably, she regards the UK’s research excellence as a strong card to hold.

Particularly in the light of the Stern Review, will Brexit have an impact on REF?

Even with the Treasury’s protections (see above), in the absence of a new arrangement (like that with Norway or Switzerland), EU research funding to UK universities is likely to tail off around the same time that the next REF round is due. A Brexit-related fall in funding would create barriers to research competitiveness and would negatively impact the wider public research impact.

What will happen to the UK’s membership of non-EU European organisations?

UK to withdraw from Euratom

Update 27/01/2017 As well as triggering Article 50, the Brexit Bill before Parliament empowers the PM to withdraw from Euratom, the community that provides the basis for research into nuclear power. As this is not an EU body, it is unlikely the Government would seek this authority unless it intends to exercise it, which casts a worrying shadow over the future of fusion research in the UK and international collaborations which may prove critical for the future of energy trade and combatting climate change. Read more.

 

How Brexit might affect knowledge transfer in engineering?

Will collaborations with industry be affected and, if so, how?

Research collaborations need not be affected so long as the UK engineering sector itself remains economically healthy and competitive (see below).

It is even possible to argue that a reduction in EU research funding may encourage private sector to plug funding gaps because the research drives their own innovation (although the funding criteria would of course be quite different). However, the gap to be filled may open up only in the UK and, instead of supporting more research in Britain, larger industrial partners will look to what may be a more healthy research environment in EU universities.

In any case, most predictions for the economic health of the engineering sector post-Brexit are not encouraging. That might lead to shrinking business, falling recruitment and relocation of investment overseas.

Having said that, in order to stave off economic hardship, some of the larger, more resilient firms may decide to invest more heavily in research and innovation.  Whether they do so in the UK will depend on the value they place on the competitiveness of UK research. That in turn will be linked to engineering faculties’ ability to recruit and retain highly skilled researchers (which links back to the mobility of staff, see above).

Will there be impacts relating to patents?

The UK is a signatory to the European Patent Convention and this is separate to membership of the EU. At the moment there are no immediate changes regarding UK businesses’ ability to apply to the European Patent Office for patent protection[xvii].

 

How Brexit might affect the engineering sector as a whole?

Is it likely to become harder to meet engineering skills shortages?

There is a significant and recognised shortage of engineering skills in the UK and the UK HE system ameliorates this shortage for the wider economy by attracting students and staff who have desirable skills from other countries. The skills shortage is a reality and could be massively exacerbated with Brexit.

Will there be an impact on the sector’s international competitiveness?

The vast majority of experts, from academic economists to financial institutions, predicted before the Referendum that Brexit would be damaging to the UK economy. In particular, an exit from the EEA would make exports to the UK’s largest trading partners less competitive and imports from the EEA more expensive.

Since the Referendum, the economic signals have been mixed, but the general trends so far give little reason to believe that the predictions were wrong – and, of course, the UK is, for now, still in the EEA.

The value of the pound dropped heavily immediately after the Referendum which has given a boost to the UK’s export economy. However, this is unlikely to be a long-term effect, because the currency value is a self-limiting mechanism: sterling will strengthen again if its low value boosts the UK economy. Indeed, it has already rallied in the absence of an immediate economic post-referendum meltdown.

Any economic downturn may hit the engineering sector especially badly. Some areas of engineering rely heavily on European exports (eg the automotive industry) or on the major infrastructure projects that, over recent years, have received large-scale European funding. Engineering is a global industry and so many firms will find it relatively easy to move investment out of the UK if the conditions here are disadvantageous. Any economic hardship is likely to result in smaller R&D budgets and consequences for HE research partners.

The majority of the UK engineering sector, however, is made up of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which will not be in a position to relocate or expand investment in the face of an economic downturn. They are likely to recruit less.

If so, what repercussions are there likely to be for engineering in HE?

On the negative side: loss of EU prospective students and staff; funding issues; damaging of European partnerships.

On the positive side: links between industry and universities may strengthen.

 

Other resources

Universities UK “Policy priorities to support universities to thrive post-exit” [February 2017] 

Universities UK has produced a briefing paper (PDF) which outlines the policy priorities the government should deliver. These priorities fall into three clear stages:

  1. Short-term transitional arrangements
  2. Exit negotiations
  3. Domestic policy change

 

 

Photograph: Alexas_Fotos / Pixabay
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EPC President speaking on Estuary TV

Acknowledgement: The Culture Zone

Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC) President, Professor Stephanie Haywood of the University of Hull, appeared on Estuary TV last Friday in a segment about Hull’s upcoming Amy Johnson Festival and the Art of Engineering. Professor Haywood underlined the symbiotic relationship between Arts and Engineering and its importance to the whole spectrum of human activity.

 This year’s EPC Congress will be held in Hull (4 – 6 September) to coincide with the Amy Johnson Festival (itself linked to the city’s Freedom Festival), which will feature an exhibition of 12 replicas of Leonardo Da Vinci’s flight and wind machines. The Congress theme “The Art of Engineering” will reflect this with speakers from both industry and HE discussing new curriculum developments amongst a host of other issues key to the future of engineering in UK HE.

Both members and non members can download the draft programme and book their places here.

The advantages of offering degree apprenticeships

240216_AMRC_101The University of Sheffield has been an early entrant to this new form of higher learning.

Its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre – AMRC with Boeing (which specialises in the research and development of better manufacturing processes and more efficient factory optimisation) has excellent relationships with businesses – both large multinationals (typified by Boeing) and also local SMEs. It has been delivering research and taught masters degrees since its inception almost two decades ago. For the past three years, the AMRC as part of the University of Sheffield has provided advanced and higher apprentice training, with an annual intake of 205 apprentices. Having identified a gap in manufacturing education at degree level, it has been able to take advantage of the government initiatives and funding around degree apprenticeships to develop its offer.

With a Further Education college partner, locally, the AMRC Training Centre already offered a Foundation degree and higher apprenticeship, but is now recruiting to the first year of its new Bachelors in Manufacturing programmes (BMan), designed to provide degree level apprenticeships in Manufacturing.  The BMan programme will run via day release over three years.  By teaching over 36 weeks a year, on one (long) day a week, and using a flipped classroom/blended learning approach, the curriculum has been designed to  deliver graduates of the standard that employers are expecting. Students will be able to study for a foundation degree in two years, a bachelor’s degree in three years or to master’s level over four years.

The employers say that the key benefits are that as well as being better engaged and loyal,

  • the students understand industry;
  • they know how to make things;
  • they have manufacturing skills;
  • they have an established work ethic.

In addition, they will have access to experts from the university and AMRC to support student projects and the apprentice levy and government support improves the financial viability, even for small companies.

From the students’ perspective, they get paid while they study, ‘earn while they learn’ and apply their academic learning in their own workplace through project work in their companies. The blended learning approach means that they will be able to do much of the learning in their own time, meaning that the time they spend in at university will focus on problem classes, laboratories and tutorials.

The university sees it as a flagship activity with a number of key advantages:

  • It enables the university to cover the full post-16 to PhD spectrum of education in manufacturing, with industry engagement at every stage;
  • It enables the university to apply its standards and educational experience to widen the number and diversity of people studying engineering.
  • It allows the university to better engage with the region, its local manufacturing base and the rest of the world to provide an additional pipeline of well-qualified, graduate engineers.

 

With thanks to Professor Stephen Beck, Head of Multidisciplinary Engineering Education, University of Sheffield

Could your students inspire the engineers of the future?

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Teaching physics is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind as a career for an engineering graduate. However, it is a rewarding, valuable and important occupation and engineers make excellent teachers.

Specialist physics teachers play a vital role in the classroom to nurture, educate and guide the next generation of engineering and physics graduates.

The UK needs a two-fold increase in the number of engineering graduates if it is to meet demand for 1.28 million new STEM professionals and technicians by 2020 (EngineeringUK). This can only be achieved if we increase the pool of potential undergraduates by encouraging more – and more diverse students – to take physics A-level.

The evidence is clear that the single biggest influence on students’ choice of subjects is the quality of their teacher. Currently, there is a chronic shortfall of specialist physics teachers with a good background in school-level physics; so, to increase A-level numbers, the system needs more specialist teachers.

An engineering degree equips students with all they need to become a great specialist physics teacher. They have the subject background, they are good communicators and they can relate the content of physics courses to engineering contexts – capturing the imagination of students and exemplifying for them the experience of studying engineering.

The Institute of Physics is offering 150 scholarships to individuals with the background and enthusiasm to be exceptional teachers of physics. Each scholarship is worth £30,000 tax-free funding, as well as a package of support which includes networking events, mentoring and IOP membership during your training year. We can also offer school experience placements if they would like to inform their choice.

There is more information about teaching at www.iop.org/engineerteach. Please do encourage some of your undergraduates to consider becoming a physics teacher. Doing so is an investment in the future and in the next generation of engineers.

Professor Helen Atkinson among ‘Top 50 Women in Engineering’

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An inaugural list of the top 50 Women in Engineering, featuring former EPC President and University of Leicester Head of Engineering Professor Helen Atkinson, was published in the Daily Telegraph for the first time on 23 June 2016 to coincide with the National Women in Engineering Day.

The list, compiled by the Telegraph in collaboration with the Women’s Engineering Society features the UK’s top influential female engineers chosen from almost 900 nominations.

You can read the University of Leicester press release here.

Professor Atkinson is Head of the Department of Engineering at the University of Leicester and a  trustee of the Royal Academy of Engineering. She chairs the  Committee on Education and Skills for the Royal Academy of Engineering. She was elected the first woman President of the Engineering Professors’ Council in its fifty year history, the body which represents engineering in higher education throughout the UK.

Challenges of introducing and designing new engineering programmes…

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Grant Campbell and Daniel Belton at the University of Huddersfield have just published this useful paper about introducing a new programme in a high cost subject at a time of constrained resources but high demand…The full paper may be downloaded here.

Abstract: The rise in popularity of chemical engineering among students entering university has prompted expansion of the UK provision, through increased intake into current degree programmes and with the rise of new providers. The former entails logistical challenges of processing larger numbers through existing infrastructures whilst maintaining the student experience. The latter entails challenges of designing and introducing programmes that build harmoniously on existing non-chemical engineering provision, within the constraints of university validation procedures and physical resources, and in the face of uncertainty around student and staff recruitment, while aspiring to implement best practice in chemical engineering content and pedagogy. Following a review of the UK chemical engineering landscape and a critique of literature guidance on the appropriate content of chemical engineering curricula, this paper illustrates the issues of new programme development through the approaches and experiences of a new provider, the University of Huddersfield, which introduced new chemical engineering programmes from academic year 2013/14. The paper addresses specifying the content of chemical engineering programmes to align with accreditation requirements and literature advice while maintaining distinctiveness. The constraints imposed by the need to specify and validate courses internally and to minimise substantive programme changes subsequently, whilst responding to the opportunities that arise as staff are recruited and to external developments and unplanned incidents, are highlighted and illustrated, in order to draw lessons that might help to guide other new entrants.