Does accreditation help or hinder innovation?

In advance of the EPC’s forthcoming live webcast, one of the panellists, Prof Sean Wellington, considers whether the requirements of accreditation help foster new approaches to engineering higher education.


Academic accreditation of engineering degrees is a well-established feature of UK higher education. It is seen as a valuable ‘kite mark’ for degree providers operating in a marketized higher education system and confers some benefits for graduates who wish to seek professional registration. However academic accreditation has both costs and benefits. 

Prof Sean Wellington
Professor Sean Wellington FIET PFHEA is Pro Vice-Chancellor and Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology at Middlesex University. A past Chair of the IET Academic Accreditation Committee, Sean has a particular interest in engineering education and the professional formation of Engineers. He chaired the Engineering Council Working Group that developed AHEP Edition 4 and is a member of the Accreditation Review Working Group.

Some costs are obvious, such as the staff time required to prepare for an accreditation visit and possibly a fee payable to the Professional Engineering Institution (PEI). The degree provider (the university) also has to abide by the ‘rules of the game’. This is where things can get complicated because there are several sets of rules in play.

The Engineering Council handbook for academic accreditation is a permissive document that defines output standards for the various types of accredited degree through learning outcomes, but it does not define how the learning outcomes are taught or assessed. The standard, Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes (AHEP), also outlines the requirements and process for academic accreditation.

Additionally, there are the documented policies and procedures of the different PEIs licensed by the Engineering Council to accredit degree programmes, and finally the unwritten custom and practice of the PEI and the interpretation and application of the written and unwritten ‘rules’ by a particular accreditation visit panel.

PEIs are encouraged not to define rules beyond the AHEP standard. However, many chose to do so: for example, requiring major group or individual projects, perhaps with a specified credit weighting, specific curriculum content or the use of formal written examinations. The Engineering Council has licensed some 35 PEIs to accredit degree programmes and many higher education providers are working with several PEIs who may have different (and even antagonistic) approaches. These differences are particularly noticeable where units concerned with distinct engineering specialisms have been integrated into larger multidisciplinary engineering schools or departments.

Universities, when required to navigate different PEI requirements, may be forgiven for taking a defensive approach. Visit panels represent another unknown since the outcome of the engagement is heavily dependent on the individual and collective judgement of the panel members. These panel members, normally unpaid volunteers, do vitally important work, however relatively few of the PEIs that accredit degree programmes operate at the scale necessary to support a dedicated staff team for academic accreditation and the training and support for volunteers is somewhat variable. Panel members may also lack familiarity with new approaches to teaching, learning and assessment.

There is a long tradition of scholarship and innovation in engineering higher education so change is possible. For accreditation to be conferred, a degree provider must convince the PEI that their approach is equivalent to established practice and PEIs have different ‘red lines’ that limit what can be achieved. This has the potential to inhibit new thinking, however professional accreditation can also be used as a convenient defence mechanism by those unwilling or reluctant to embrace change.

It should also be possible to use the accreditation process to share innovative practice, particularly where this can help address issues of general concern to the sector. Many PEIs identify and record good practice in their accreditation visit reports, however such practice is not widely shared or celebrated. A mechanism to share innovative practice might involve AdvanceHE and connect with existing awards such as CATE and NTF.

The Engineering Council has responded to concerns expressed by higher education providers and sector bodies – including the EPC – by initiating a review of accreditation. I believe we need to retain the strengths of the current system but reduce unnecessary and unhelpful differences in approach. There are real and perceived barriers to innovation, however AHEP Edition 4, to be launched in September 2020, is quite clear –

Higher Education providers are encouraged to develop innovative degree programmes in response to industry needs and the Engineering Council does not favour any particular approach to teaching, learning or assessment. The key consideration is that all graduates from an accredited degree programme must meet all of the prescribed learning outcomes. Assessment should be designed to minimise opportunities for students to commit academic misconduct, including plagiarism, self-plagiarism and contract cheating.

We must not lose our willingness to innovate. For example, our recent experiences of remote teaching and assessment forced by the COVID-19 crisis can shape long-term changes to our teaching, learning and assessment practice that will benefit students. To this end, we should work with Engineering Council and PEIs to support the current accreditation review and ensure unnecessary barriers to innovation are removed.


The live webcast ‘Accreditation & Innovation’ will be held at 2pm on 14th July 2020. Registration is free to EPC members, but booking is essential. This webcast is part of the New Approaches to Engineering Higher Education series, held in partnership with the IET. Recordings from the webcast series are available on the recent events page.

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.

Call for papers: New approaches to Engineering Higher Education

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Conference: New approaches to Engineering Higher Education, 22 May 2017

The Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Engineering Professors’ Council will be on May 22, at 4PM, following a free one-day conference at the IET in London. This will be a high-profile event featuring a Government minister (name to be confirmed), the President of the IET and other higher profile speakers. The debate will be chaired by Professor John Perkins, former BIS Chief Scientific Adviser and author of the 2013 BIS Review of Engineering Skills. There will also be an opportunity for members of the IET to present and to be featured in the published proceedings afterwards.

Please see the call for papers (deadline 9 January 23 January 2017)