Engineering higher education faces multiple threats, according to new landmark report

A worrying convergence of challenges, outlined in a high-profile report published today, is threatening the vital role of higher education in supporting the UK’s engineering sector, a critical part of the country’s economy.

Led by the Royal Academy of Engineering and with significant input from the Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC), Engineering Skills for the Future – the 2013 Perkins review revisited has found key barriers for addressing the annual shortfall of 59,000 engineers and technicians in the UK workforce.

In the context of higher education, the post-18 education funding review, falling research revenues and international student numbers after Brexit, proposals in the Immigration White Paper, and the challenge to diversify the intake of students are all cited as issues that could undermine the supply of essential engineering graduates into the UK labour market.

The report highlights how the whole education system cannot produce enough engineers to support the UK economy, especially with increasing reliance on home-grown talent post-Brexit.

The report, produced by Education for Engineering, an engineering education and skills policy body, makes a raft of recommendations for government including relaxing the rules on how the Apprenticeship Levy may be spent, addressing the shortage of skilled teachers, and ensuring engineering higher education is well resourced and attractive to applicants in the event of changes to student funding.

The 2013 Review of Engineering Skills by Professor John Perkins FREng, commissioned by government, was a landmark report, the first to review engineering education from primary schools to professions. Engineering Skills for the Future – the 2013 Perkins review revisited is an independent report from the engineering profession.  It revisits the challenges highlighted in the original Perkins Review, and sets out a roadmap for government and the engineering community that identifies urgent priorities for action. 

The report specifically recommends that the UK must remain part of international partnerships to continue to attract students from the EU and all over the world and should extend opportunities for graduates to stay and work in the country after their studies. It also emphasises the need for top-up grants for engineering courses in the event of any cuts to tuition fees.

Also relevant to higher education, is the report’s call for an urgent review of post-16 academic education pathways for England. Young people should have the opportunity to study mathematics, science and technology subjects along with arts and humanities up to the age of 18. The report recommends this to encourage more students from a broader range of backgrounds into further and higher engineering education. The current system runs the risk of narrowing education choices and potentially closing the door to technical and creative careers.

Professor John Perkins CBE, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, who led this report, said:

“Engineering is enormously valuable to the UK economy but suffers from a chronic shortage of skills, let down by the leaking pipes of the education system that removes the option of an engineering career for too many young people at every stage of their education. There has been scant progress in addressing the UK’s engineering skills gap since I first reviewed the education system five years ago, but the government’s Year of Engineering campaign in 2018 has shown what can be achieved with concerted and coordinated action. As a profession, we must now continue to raise the profile of engineering nationally and leverage this to galvanise change for the better.

“We need to broaden the curriculum for post-16 education, value technical education on a par with academic progression, unlock more potential from the Apprenticeship Levy, and guarantee affordable, fair and inclusive access to engineering degrees. These changes have the potential to pay dividends in the years to come for young people, the economy, and society.”

Professor Sarah Spurgeon OBE, President of the Engineering Professors’ Council, said:

“We wholeheartedly welcome this report and are proud to have contributed to its findings. The chain that links the development of tomorrow’s engineers through schools, colleges, universities and into the workplace is broken. This is not just a problem for UK engineering, but for the whole economy. Engineering is at the heart of the Industrial Strategy and Brexit will bring huge challenges in terms of skills shortages.

“As the seedbeds of innovation, our university engineering departments have been particularly successful in attracting talent from all over the world. International students make up 40% of our students and they contribute hugely to our education system and businesses in so many ways.” 

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