New approaches to Engineering Higher Education

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The EPC has been working with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), academics and industry for over two years to encourage and support changes to how students are taught to become engineers. 

During this time, we have seen innovative courses that encourage project work, include industry whenever they can and work on increasing diversity.

Our recent conference (November 2019) showcased a wide range of case studies from universities, and the people within them, who have led the changes to create innovative and forward-thinking degree courses.

We have, with the IET, pulled together these case studies conference proceedings focus not only on the changes that have been made but also how they were achieved. Download the proceedings here.

In addition to the case studies, the day also included poster presentations from universities in the process of making some equally innovative changes to their engineering courses. The papers for these can be seen here:

Canterbury Christchurch University of Hertfordshire
Imperial College LondonUniversity of Sheffield
NMiTETEDI – London
University of Strathclyde

For more information on our work to date is available here.

EPC Engineering Enrolments Survey 2019

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EPC Engineering Enrolments Survey Results 2019/20

Firstly, a huge thank you for your contributions to this year’s EPC engineering enrolments survey. The survey gives us all an early temperature check of the health of HE undergraduate and postgraduate engineering enrolments; our survey is the only place you can gain this insight, many months before enrolment data for 2019/20 is published by HESA.

This year saw challenges in our member engagement, with (temporary) pressures on staff and restructuring cited as the main reasons for non-completion this year. None-the-less, the data quality and coverage remain sound, with responses from over half of our members, covering £30,000 enrolled students, against an unprecedented 193 discrete discipline areas. We continue to work to make your involvement as easy as possible and are pleased that better EPC communication with you has almost eliminated the need for universities to make multiple submissions. Your support in this area is greatly appreciated.

The pattern of engineering enrolments

Postgraduate:

Postgraduate enrolments were dominated by Electrical, electronic and computer engineering this year. Postgraduate engineering courses saw a much higher proportion of overseas enrolments, especially within the Russell Group (which saw higher international enrolments overall). Overall, 2 in every 3 postgraduate engineering enrolments were international.

First degree:

Mechanical engineering remains the sector leader for undergraduate enrolments. Across all engineering disciplines, just under 1 in 4 of first degree enrolments were international in our survey.

Degree apprenticeships and foundation:

For the first time this year, undergraduate enrolments were returned against Degree Apprenticeship and Foundation separately to first degree undergraduates. Nearly 2,000 students were returned in this category. General engineering dominated the other undergraduate enrolments. This cohort was almost exclusively home students.

Focus on: other undergraduate enrolments

  • 27% of this cohort were enrolled on degree apprenticeships, and
    64% were enrolled on foundation programmes (some universities provided combined data for both). These were almost exclusively UK domiciled (90%).
  • The majority of enrolments on foundation programmes were in General Engineering.
  • Civil engineering dominated Degree Apprenticeships.
  • Other undergraduate programmes shared a lower than engineering average female: male ratio with < 1 in 5 enrolments being female (15.5% foundation and 19.4% degree apprenticeship).
  • More than 4 in 5 Foundation courses were in pre-92 universities.
  • More than 4 in 5 Degree Apprenticeships were in post-92s.
  • 83% of degree apprenticeships and 63% of foundation programmes returned were found in in English universities.
  • Again, only a handful of Degree Apprenticeships were reported at postgraduate level.

Focus on: Electrical, electronic and computer engineering

Enrolling at ¾ of responding universities, Electrical, electronic and computer engineering is a growth discipline in our survey. It also:

  • Dominated our postgraduate sample for the first time this year.
  • Closed-in on Mechanical, aero and production engineering at undergraduate level.
  • Was proportionally the singularly most internationally dependent discipline in our sample (accounting for more than 4 in 5 postgraduate enrolments in this discipline and 1 in 3 first degree enrolments) – nearly 1 in 3 international enrolments overall were in Electrical, electronic & computer engineering.
  • Had a lower than average female: male ratio in our undergraduate sample and a higher than average female: male ratio in our postgraduate sample.
  • Had a higher than average full-time population in our survey.
  • Reported only a handful of degree apprenticeships and foundation courses.

Last year, we were advised by our members that attracting Electronic and electrical engineering students continued to be challenging. What is going on here? Are these all computer engineering courses? Comments welcome!

Focus on women in engineering

Our survey suggests that recruiting from further afield increases female enrolments, particularly if you’re in the Russell Group… and enrolling postgraduates. Just over half of the women enrolled in our sample were at Russell Group universities and females were more dominant in the in this cohort at postgraduate level.

At discipline level:

  • General and civil engineering accounted for 1 in 3 of all home female enrolments.
  • EU females favoured Aeronautical and aerospace engineering, especially at postgraduate level.
  • Over half of first degree enrolments sampled in Bioengineering, medical and biomedical engineering were female.
  • The proportion of international women enrolling in Mechanical engineering is half of the proportion of international men.

Enrolments compared with 2018-19

Overall, the levels of decline versus growth were quite uniform in the data, suggesting relative stability in the engineering sector again this year. Some growth overall was evident, with the other overseas postgraduate market, in particular, reporting substantial growth (as well as Russell Group postgraduate enrolments). Regional variations show greater growth than decline at undergraduate level except for in the North and Wales / Northern Ireland. At postgraduate level, enrolments in these regions appear stable with Scotland, the (South) East and London losing out.

At discipline level, the starkest disciplines are Mineral, metallurgy and materials engineering – which showed only growth – and IT systems sciences & computer software engineering, which had the most diverse change distribution in our survey.

General engineering witnessed the greatest net growth. Chemical, process and energy engineering witnessed the greatest net decline (followed by Mechanical engineering). Chemical, process and energy engineering has seen a decline in our survey in 2 of the last 3 years.

Reflections

Of course, we know that recruitment and selection is made in the context of institutional strategies and targets, which do vary. For example, some of the fluctuations in numbers will be a conscious decision to reduce cohort size, rather than be based solely fluctuations in market.

Finally, we would appreciate your views on whether the value of this survey is greater than the burden to contribute to it? Engagement has been compromised by other factors this year. Is this just a blip? How can we help? Please share your own reflections below…

Further information

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

Recruitment and Admissions Forum 2019

The annual Recruitment and Admissions Forum took place at University of Wales Trinity St David’s new SA1 Swansea Waterfront development on 27th November 2019 convened by EPC Recruitment and Admissions Committee Vice Chair, Richard Morgan. Many thanks to UWTSD for hosting us this year (if you would like to discuss hosting in future, please contact us).

This year’s forum focused on an unprecedented insight into the latest engineering student demographic profile research, led by Dr Tim Bullough who gave us a whistle-stop tour through the findings of his Royal Academy of Engineering research project into entry qualifications and engineering.

The Forum started with an intriguing plenary outlining the key findings, including that:

  • Female students are less likely to drop out and they get better degrees on average. Also, pre-92 universities admit proportionately more of them.
  • At Russell Group universities, Engineering students fro m disadvantaged areas are three times more likely to dropout than students from more privileged backgrounds. In other pre-92 universities, they’re twice as likely, but at post-92 unis, the difference almost disappears.
  • Foundation degree students are twice as likely to drop out as traditional year one degree entry students.

We then enjoyed a full morning data hackathon – a deep dive into engineering student demographic profile entry requirements, enrolment, continuation and outcome patterns – enabling an evidence-based look at some of the most fundamental questions facing engineering admissions today.

The afternoon welcomed a range of speakers:

  • Graham Howe (UWTSD) outlined the MADE project: UWTSD’s innovative provision to enable those already in industry to study level 7 and MSE Engineering programmes.
  • Francesca Nichols (EDT) walked us through their approach to encouraging young people into STE(A)M careers.
  • The EPC’s own Stella Fowler launched the results of the EPC’s annual Engineering Enrolments Survey.

Finally our closing keynote speaker Eliza Kozman (Behavioural Insights Team) outlined a behavioural and evidence-driven approach to recruitment and admissions in engineering and STEM.

For delegates at the Forum only, the speakers’ presentations may be downloaded here (a delegate password is required). All members will shortly be able to access a summary of the results of the engineering enrolments survey in the members areas of the EPC website. If you have forgotten your password, please contact us.

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Guest blog: Time to Reflect on the Wellbeing of our Engineers

By Jo-Anne Tait – Academic Strategic Lead, School of Engineering, Robert Gordon University

Students’ mental health is a deservedly hot topic in higher education. But is the conversation more difficult when it comes to engineering? Are the challenges greater?

When I am asked about the topic of my PhD I have noticed the responses are interesting. Engineers for the most part look puzzled, and wonder why I might think this is worthy of investigation. Some even show signs of annoyance that this is even a thing. Non-engineers on the other hand, their eyes open wider in fascination and regale me with tales of the (not so positive) habits of the engineers they know.  

I am studying the mental wellbeing of engineering students. I believe there is something wrong with how we approach this topic in engineering education in relation to future engineers. In fact, it appears we don’t really approach it at all.

I was a geologist by trade before I entered engineering academia, teaching drilling engineering students. Nearly 20 years later, I look after the teaching, learning and student experience in a School of Engineering. I see my job as helping the engineers of the future and I take it very seriously.

I realise I am preaching to the converted somewhat but in case anyone isn’t clear, engineers are absolutely vital in addressing global challenges: energy, sustainability, transport, infrastructure, and medication are just a few.

But despite the importance placed on the role of the engineer in our future, the UK has a serious shortage of engineers. This phenomenon is echoed in the U.S., China, South Africa and Germany with reports of demand far outstripping supply. Calls for education reform are growing and there has been an increase in the diversification of engineering education through degree apprenticeships and widening participation activities.

From my seat at the table I am seeing a worrying rise in mental health and wellbeing issues in engineering students. Often by the time I am made aware of a student’s situation it is at or near crisis point rather than earlier, when more support might be possible. I raised my concerns and discovered that, anecdotally, engineering students sought help in far fewer numbers than students of other disciplines. Further reading told me this was not unusual in engineering higher education and so I began to dig further.

Given the mental health and wellbeing of university and college students has been the subject of considerable discussion nationally and internationally it might surprise you to discover that engineering students are not well represented in this literature. It certainly surprised me, given the challenging and competitive nature of engineering degree programmes and the male-skewed gender balance of the discipline.

Men, and young men in particular have a higher risk of suicide and the incidence of schizophrenia in males is reported to be significantly higher than in females. Young adults are at higher risk of developing serious mental illnesses and it has also been reported that female engineering students report even poorer mental wellbeing than their male counterparts. An American institution found that engineering students had a higher prevalence of mental health problems than the general student population, were less likely to use mental health services than students from other disciplines, were “significantly less likely to report suicidal ideation” and there was a “significantly decreased likelihood of seeking help”.

The NUS reported well over half of students reporting mental distress attributed this to heavy workload and coursework deadlines and engineering courses are well-known for heavy workloads and assessment schedules.

So, engineering students are potentially at higher risk of suffering from poor mental wellbeing, and are also less likely to seek assistance than students of other disciplines. To me this points to an unmet need of engineering students and so I decided to undertake a PhD in this area. I chose to focus my efforts on engineering students because I feel that is where I may have most impact, but it is likely the problems I am identifying in students also exist in the engineering profession itself.

 A recent report on masculinity in engineering highlighted over a fifth of respondents reporting having had to take time off work because of mental ill health. Distressingly, the report also notes that nearly a fifth of respondents stated they had lost an engineering colleague to suicide. When asked if they experienced stress, sleeping issues, thoughts on self-harm or being bothered by feeling anxious, depressed, irritable or sad, 77% of participants answered yes.

By investigating the mental wellbeing of engineering students, I am hopeful that we can uncover a unique insight into a population that has been overlooked in mental wellbeing studies and may be at increased risk of mental ill health and poor mental wellbeing.

Given the shortage of engineers in the UK, it is time we looked more closely at the mental wellbeing of our engineers, both current and future. Because, increasingly, more is expected of engineers. They need to be more mentally agile and more able to drive change and innovation than ever before.

For that they need to have skills we don’t always shine a light on so much in university engineering education: resilience, empathy, active listening, self-preservation, conflict resolution and, essentially, metacognition.

I appreciate we are some years away from a UKSPEC review, but one way of encouraging engineers to look after their mental wellbeing is to support metacognition activities more explicitly through the UKSPEC’s section D, to include development of intrapersonal skills. Placing an importance on this at the heart of what it is to be a professional engineer will feed through to AHEP and AQAH requirements and may be a way to support institutions in working towards building a supportive environment for engineering personal development.

Meanwhile, let’s try to normalise conversations about mental health and wellbeing and support our engineering colleagues and friends whenever we can.

And for my part, I will continue to support engineers and engineering students by finishing my PhD and providing some recommendations!

Brexit impact on UK’s engineering education sector: Exploring EU students and staff experiences

The Engineering Professors’ Council and the UCL Centre for Engineering Education are running a research project, funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering, that seeks to address and understand the motivations, experiences and expectations of European citizens in UK’s engineering education context.

This study research aims to explore and substantiate the current and anticipated impact of Brexit’s decision on both European engineering students and staff currently studying and working in the UK.

If you are a non-UK European citizen and would like to take part, please see the academic staff or student calls for participation.

Call for participation: students

Are you a non-UK European citizen?

Are you studying engineering in the UK (undergraduate or postgraduate level)?

The UCL Centre for Engineering Education and the Engineering Professors’ Council are running a research project, funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering, that seeks to address and understand the motivations, experiences and expectations of European citizens in UK’s engineering education context. We would like to hear from you!

We’re looking for non-UK participants to get involved in this project. Interested in participating in a short online interview? It should take no more than 30 – 40 minutes.

Please register here: https://is.gd/EU_EngineeringStudents

You can read more about the project here.

If you need more information, please get in touch with the researcher, Dr Inês Direito, i.direito@ucl.ac.uk

Thank you for considering taking part in this research study.

* Please forward this email to relevant fellow students*

Contact for further information

Dr Inês Direito, PhD, MSc, FHEA

Research Fellow, UCL Centre for Engineering Education

Email: i.direito@ucl.ac.uk

Telephone: +44 (0)20 767 93 153

Torrington Place, room 2.09 Engineering Front Building

London WC1E 7JE

Call for participation: staff

Are you a non-UK European citizen?

Are you an engineering lecturer and/or researcher in a UK higher education institution?

The Engineering Professors’ Council and the UCL Centre for Engineering Education are running a research project, funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering, that seeks to address and understand the motivations, experiences and expectations of European citizens in UK’s engineering education context. We would like to hear from you!

We’re looking for non-UK participants to get involved in this project. Interested in participating in a short online interview? It should take no more than 30 – 40 minutes.

Please register here: https://is.gd/EU_EngineeringAcademics

You can read more about the project here.

We are also looking for students to participate, can you circulate the student call for participation to your students?

If you need more information, please get in touch with the researcher, Dr Inês Direito, i.direito@ucl.ac.uk

Thank you for considering taking part in this research study.

*Please forward this email to relevant colleagues*

Contact for further information:

Dr Inês Direito, PhD, MSc, FHEA

Research Fellow, UCL Centre for Engineering Education

Email: i.direito@ucl.ac.uk

Telephone: +44 (0)20 767 93 153

Torrington Place, room 2.09 Engineering Front Building

London WC1E 7JE

Guest blog: ‘If you were an engineer, what would you do?’

By Dr Susan Scurlock MBE – CEO of Primary Engineer

If you are one of the 125,000+ passengers per day heading through Gatwick South this summer, you may just spot your university’s Leaders Award prototype on the huge hoarding showcase.

Thanks to 49,000 school children aged between 3 and 19, 33 regional funders, three new national funders – Facebook, Network Rail and Gatwick Airport – and 19 university supporters (not forgetting the EPC’s support!) Primary Engineer is delighted to announce its ‘Wall of Fame 19’.

Gatwick Airport has today (August 13th) launched a three-week long exhibition of winners of the Primary Engineer Leaders Award ‘If you were an engineer, what would you do?’. The intention is to profile the university-builds from this and previous years and ask for a popular vote from the £2.6 million+ passengers walking through the terminal during the 3-week exhibition at the busiest time of year.

‘Wall of Fame 19’ showcases 11 inspirational prototypes of inventions designed by pupils from across the country and built by engineering students and technicians from universities in every UK region. Three working prototypes will be displayed – the Bicycle Sucker (built by Kingston University), the SMA Jacket (built by UCLan) and the Flat Pack Wind Turbine (built by Glasgow Caledonian University).

The Primary Engineer Leaders Award – “If you were an engineer, what would you do?” – links both primary and secondary schools with engineering professionals from across the sectors.  The competition promotes engineering to young people, with a 50/50 gender split for entries, and allows them to find the ‘engineer within’ by designing solutions to problems they have identified.

Primary Engineer is a not for profit educational organisation. Its approach brings engineering and engineers into primary and secondary classrooms and curricula; inspiring children, pupils and teachers through continued professional development, whole class projects, and the competition.

Dr. Susan Scurlock, MBE, founder of Primary Engineer said: “This exhibition at one of the most important travel hubs in the UK is testament to the commitment of commercial organisations, schools and universities who are all doing their bit to help pupils tap into their inner engineer. Each year I am astounded by the designs by pupils, some as young as 3, as they identify problems to solve which are important to them and in turn inspire engineers to build their solutions. We started by asking engineers to inspire children and have found that children inspire engineers. Perfect!” 

You don’t need to be passing through Gatwick to vote. The voting page is available at www.leadersaward.com/walloffame19/ and will feature each drawing, and photograph of each invention from this year and, in a separate section an opportunity to vote for previous years’ builds – we are looking to identify 2 winning builds. Please do vote and tweet “I have voted for my favourite design #walloffame19 @leadersaward!”.

New! DATA BLOG: Grade inflation?

Earlier this month, the OfS published a new release of degree classification data, concluding that the growing proportion of the first and upper second class degrees awarded cannot be fully explained by factors linked with degree attainment. Specifically, the new analysis finds that in 2017-18, 13.9 percentage points’ worth of first-class degree attainment is unexplained by changes in the graduate population since 2010-11, an increase of 2.4 percentage points from the unexplained attainment in 2016-17. So we have it – grade inflation.

So, we’ve fished some unfiltered HESA data out of our archives, updated it, and looked at the distributions between first, second and third-class honours in engineering. And it seems that engineering paints a very different (worse?) picture than the sector as a whole. We award a notably higher proportion of firsts and, at a glance, a commensurately lower proportion of 2nd class honours. The proportion of 3rd class honours/pass awarded has come into line with the all subjects over recent years. It varies by engineering discipline, but nowhere is the proportion of firsts lower than for all subjects.

You might think, then, that high-level degree awards in engineering (firsts plus upper-class seconds) were nothing to write home about. But in 2016/17, at 77.3%, the proportion of high-level degree awards in engineering was one percentage point higher than for all subjects (and the difference has fluctuated around the one percent mark for the past ten years).

A simplified index plot, where 1 (the central y axis) represents all subjects, shows the propensity of a first in engineering is consistently greater than for all subjects (where the longer the bar, the greater the over-representation). The over-representation of firsts in engineering has shown a notable reduction over the past ten years and, at 1.4, was at its lowest yet in 2017/18. The overrepresentation of third-class honours in engineering visible from 2007/08 to 2015/15 has now been eliminated. You can see from this analysis that the over-representation of firsts is in fact greater than the combined under-representation of 2:1s and 2:2s.

So, what does this tell us? That the rise in higher degree classifications doesn’t apply to engineering? The number of high-level degrees in engineering has increased from 10,180 in 2007/8 to 18,690 in 2017/8, an increase of 83.6%. Proportionally, this has risen from 62.7% of all degree awards in engineering to 77.3%. That’s just marginally less proportional growth than the 14.9 percentage point difference for all subjects. But we are making progress.

Here’s the rub, who’s to say that rises in high-level degree classifications (which, sector-wide, cannot be explained by the data readily available – not my data) is necessarily a problem per se, or that is signals grade inflation? There are many reasons – not accounted for in the OfS statistical models – for degree outcome uplift, not least the massive expansion of student numbers in the last 20 years (leading to a less socially constrained pool of students); greater awareness of student support needs; the increased cost of higher education to students; more incentivised and focused students; and improved teaching in both schools and universities. Further, there is evidence that market forces; course enrolments; progression rules (e.g. progression from BEng to MEng requires achievement of marks for the first two or three years of study suggesting a minimum 2:1 standard, and therefore likely transfer of the best students away from the BEng); and the marking processes adopted by different subject areas impacts the proportion of upper degrees between subjects.

The evidence of improvement in teaching (and the development of pedagogy in UK universities) is much stronger than the evidence for grade inflation. As a discipline, this is what we must celebrate. Higher education (HE) is the gold standard in the delivery of engineering skills in the UK and has a strong international standing and reputation.

Let’s face it, the assumption that institutions need to account for grade inflation rather than educational improvement is perverse. Instead, let’s talk about and encourage innovation in teaching, learning and assessment, precisely what our New Approaches to Engineering Higher Education initiative (in partnership with the IET) aims to do. Earlier this year we launched six case study examples for each of the six new approaches, evidencing that the required changes can be achieved – are already being achieved – and we now want other institutions who have been inspired to come up with new approaches of their own to showcase their work at a New Approaches conference at the IET in November. More details will be circulated shortly.

Attribution: EPC analysis of HESA Student Qualifiers Full Person Equivalent (FPE) using Heidi Plus Online Analytics service.