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.

Augar arrives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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