Engineering opportunity: letting down the drawbridge

This week, the EPC published its report on the contribution to social mobility made by studying Engineering. Chief Executive Johnny Rich and Research Assistant Vicky Howell sum up the key findings.

The starting point for the EPC’s new report Engineering Opportunity: Maximising the opportunities for social mobility from studying Engineering is that, on average, Engineering graduates go on to earn more than most other graduates. That fact won’t surprise anyone, but the report explores the story behind it and has wide implications for higher education policy and supporting social mobility.

Compared to other subject areas, Engineering graduates do rather well financially. Starting salaries are already an average of £6,200 higher when compared to the median for all graduates and, by ten years after graduation, that’s risen to £11,700. 

However, we also found evidence that engineering is not a sector in which these salary rewards are restricted to those who already had everything going for them. Even when you take account of characteristics such as prior attainment and socio-economic disadvantage, the salary premium persists. 

In fact, when you look at students who entered Engineering with BTECs – a group which includes many disadvantaged students – their earnings boost is even greater than it is for the high-attaining A level students. Similarly, the data on getting a job and remaining in secure employment is also favourable.

In other words, studying Engineering boosts earnings significantly, regardless of background, and so supports social mobility.

So far, so self-congratulatory. However, our report goes on to acknowledge that Engineering may be a great social leveller, but as a discipline, we are not doing enough to make its advantages more accessible to the students from the very backgrounds who would benefit most.

Just one in eight students in higher education comes from the fifth of areas with the lowest participation rates (Quintile 1 in POLAR4), but in Engineering the proportion is lower still at less than one in ten. 

The reasons for this ‘drawbridge effect’ – where there’s a feast to be had, but only if you can get across the moat – are varied. 

  • Engineering is a demanding subject and so its entry requirements are often demanding too. High tariffs can not only exclude capable students with lower prior attainment, but can discourage them from even applying.
  • Because Engineering is not taught in schools, most people are as likely to think of ‘an engineer’ as someone who fixes a washing machine as someone who designs smart materials, builds spacecraft, or solves climate change challenges. This means Engineering tends to attract those who actually know an engineer in their family. In other words, it replicates its historical social profile.
  • Both outside the discipline and sometimes even within, Engineering is seen as sciency (whereas, in reality, it is often as creative and practical as it is technical and theoretical) and therefore Maths and Physics are often regarded as the appropriate qualifications. In an education system where stretched schools and colleges struggle to offer A levels in these courses and have neither the resources nor the teachers to offer every pupil the chance to do triple science (ie. Chemistry, Physics and Biology) at GCSE, then it’s no surprise this becomes a filter that favours the privileged.

For these reasons and many others, the Engineering drawbridge is in stubborn need of greasing. Interestingly, however, Engineering could be seen to have the potential to be more flexible than most subjects in its entry requirements, not less. The absence of Engineering from the school curriculum means that whatever prior attainment a student might have, it will only ever be a rough proxy for their capacity to succeed as an engineer. 

This has implications for the minimum entry requirements the government is considering for access to English higher education funding. Any arbitrary cut-off tariff would have to relate to the students’ attainment in subjects other than the one they want to study. Not only would this limit social mobility, it would also undermine Engineering’s ability to recruit students to a subject area that is strategically critical in rebuilding the economy.

Skills shortages in engineering are such that school-leavers alone cannot plug the gap. We need what Paul Jackson has described as ‘intersectoral mobility’ – people with experience in the workforce retraining in engineering roles. The drawbridge must be lowered for them too.

The EPC report makes a range of recommendations, many of which would support social mobility both in and outside engineering. 

Among these is a reminder that fair access is worth examining at the discipline level and that well-intentioned system-wide incentives and metric approaches may have unintended consequences at course level where the actual admissions take place. The recruitment challenges of access in Engineering, for example, may encourage institutions to dodge the difficulties by expanding courses with a better record of attracting POLAR Q1 students, even though they may ultimately have less good social mobility outcomes.

Perhaps the most timely recommendation for the government to note relates to foundation years. These are the entry pathway for 12% of engineering graduates, including many of those BTEC-entrants and returners who not only gain most value themselves, but also repay most of their loans and are most important to attract for the sake of the economy. 

The report states, “Foundation courses, ideally with minimal procedural transition into degree study, are more effective than other access courses [AHEDs] because the continuity of study in the same institution supports progression.” 

By way of analogy, it compares the progression of students who start and complete an MEng with the smaller numbers who embark on a BEng and then decide to progress to Masters level. If you set the sights high for student with potential, they will achieve more than they thought possible to start with.

The Augar Review set its gunsights on foundation years as being no more than a more costly alternative to HE Access diplomas. Whatever one thinks of the recommendations of Augar, most of them had their reasoning clearly demonstrated. The proposal on foundation years, however, seemed conspicuous by its lack of any evidential basis. 

When the government responds fully to the Review later in the year, the EPC report (like the Policy Perspectives Nework) suggests that the best service to disadvantaged students, to Engineering and to the nation’s economic imperatives would be to expand foundation years rather than to axe them.

Foundation years – and the opportunity they offer to transition into higher education in general, or Engineering in particular – are critical to lowering the drawbridge for entry and inviting disadvantaged students to the feast beyond. 


For the most part, the data findings of the Engineering opportunity report relate to England only and not to the devolved nations. It is important to make it clear that this was a consequence of the availability of comparable data. We hope to undertake further research in other nations of the UK in future.

MEDIA RELEASE: Studying Engineering gives ‘turbo boost’ to social mobility, reveals new EPC research


In case you missed it, a recording of the event launch is available at Recent events (epc.ac.uk).


Studying Engineering gives ‘turbo boost’ to social mobility, reveals new EPC research

Report: Engineering Opportunity: Maximising the opportunities for social mobility from studying engineering

A new study, published today by the Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC), reveals that studying an Engineering degree gives a greater boost to social mobility when compared to other subjects. 

The EPC, which represents engineering academics across UK universities, found that data relating to graduates’ earnings, backgrounds and entry qualifications suggests that the gap between the incomes of Engineering graduates from different socio-economic backgrounds was significantly smaller than for other graduates. 

The Engineering Opportunity report reveals that, ten years after qualifying, the average salary of Engineering graduates is £42,700 – which is £11,700 more than the average of other graduates. While some of this was down to pre-existing characteristics associated with higher earnings (such as higher entry grades, gender, region and social status), these factors could not account for the whole gap and the higher earnings were relatively evenly spread across the country.

The study concludes: “Choosing to study Engineering in higher education really does increase labour market success, one of the drivers of social mobility.”

The earnings premium was greatest for engineers with BTEC qualifications, a group which tends to have much larger numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They earned an average of £8,100 more than the average wage of other graduates with BTECs five years after graduating.

The findings suggest that foundation years (in-university access courses) in Engineering may be a particularly effective way of delivering social mobility to students without traditional entry qualifications, but these opportunities were limited, especially in the most selective universities. 

Today’s publication provides timely evidence for the English Government’s plans for higher education. The Department for Education is expected to respond later in the year to the Augar Review of post-16 education, which recommended that the funding of foundation years should be axed. The DfE is also considering dropping BTECs as a qualification and making changes to admissions that the EPC believes would narrow opportunities.

The DfE also intends to consult on changes to fees to bolster STEM subjects and the report supports the argument that Engineering at least delivers an excellent return on investment in terms of earnings. However, the report also identifies key areas of concern and makes various recommendations to boost social mobility through Engineering and all areas of higher education. 

For example, the report showed that, despite offering a clear career benefit to all students, Engineering disproportionately attracts those from higher socio-economic groups. It was also clear that the lack of science and maths teaching in secondary education – particularly in schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students – is a major barrier to accessing the benefits of Engineering higher education. 

The study also demonstrated that, although the vast majority of students with lower qualifications benefitted when given an opportunity to study an Engineering degree, some struggled and were more prone to dropping out.

Drawing on the findings, the EPC report includes seven policy recommendations to further enhance the social mobility gains achieved through higher education, and Engineering in particular. These include: wider access to ‘triple science’ at GCSE; more radical and widespread consideration of students’ backgrounds in university admissions; entry grades automatically adjusted to account for background; expansion of foundation years; conversion courses to support students academically; use of metrics that focus on the value added to each student rather than unfair comparisons; and regulation of university access at the level of subject areas as well as whole institutions.

The EPC’s Chief Executive, Johnny Rich, commented:

“Our findings demonstrate that not only is Engineering higher education critical to the future of our economy, our regions and our environment, it is also a great social leveller, providing a more equal chance to succeed for all students regardless of their background.

“Aspiration among young people is not lacking, but opportunity is. We need to build a system – through education and into employment – that engineers opportunities for all who want to realise their potential.”

EPC President, Professor Colin Turner, added:

“We must build on our success in creating chances for students by maximising their potential. We must level the playing field of educational opportunities in schools. We must support those with BTECs or from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain access to Engineering degrees and foundation years. We must support them to succeed by addressing their academic needs. And we must help them to progress into the workplace where they can build opportunities for generations to come.”

Ends. 

Date: 21st May 2021
EMBARGO:                   00:01 Tuesday 25th May 2021
For more information:   Johnny Rich, 078 1111 4292, j.rich@epc.ac.uk

Notes:

  • The Engineering Professors’ Council is the voice of engineering academics in UK universities, representing over 8,000 individuals across 85 different universities. 
  • Engineering Opportunity: Maximising the opportunities for social mobility from studying engineering is available on the EPC website at bit.ly/EPCEngOpp
  • The report will be launched at an online event from 9.15 to 10.15 am. Key findings will be presented as well as a panel of individuals who are able to share their personal perspectives on social mobility. Register to attend at bit.ly/EPCSocialMobility
  • Johnny Rich, EPC Chief Executive, is available for interview.