Eight ways to cut engineering skill shortages #STEM

There have been numerous warnings over recent years that the UK faces a shortage of engineers. But despite reports on the problem, it is far from solved.

Many universities have struggled to drive up the number of students starting undergraduate engineering courses - in 2012-13, the most recent year for which data is available, the enrolment rate actually fell by just under 1%. We speak to academics and policy experts to find out how institutions can encourage more students to take up engineering.

Lower tuition fees
There are many schemes that offer bursaries for engineering but they do not attract enough interest - instead, we should consider introducing a lower tuition fee cap for the subject. Engineering's problems are rooted in Britain's memory of industrial decline. Manufacturing is still seen as a risk; a thing of Britain's past or something associated with less developed countries. By lowering tuition fees the government would expresses confidence in Britain having an industrial future again.

The headline cost of education clearly matters to students. The introduction of £9,000 fees sparked huge protests and caused applications to fall by 7.7% in England, though they've recovered since. The clearer the message - lowering the price - the better chance of it trickling down to young people, particularly those thinking about A-level choices and GCSEs. (Joe Wright, researcher, Civitas, the institute for the study of civil society)

Reform the curriculum
We need curriculum reform. In particular we need to do this to open up the pool of applicants that we attract from. We have had such a focus on the message that engineering is only for those that are really good at maths and science we are losing a large number of possible candidates. We need to emphasise the creative aspects of engineering and show that it is about solving problems not just solving equations. (John Mitchell, director of the integrated engineering programme, University College London)

Talk to primary school children about what engineering is
Universities should work with local communities, schools and teachers to talk about what engineering is. It's important to start working with schools as early as possible - leaving it to secondary school level is actually too late. At the moment in primary schools, engineering only comes in during history lessons. If you explain to children, for example, that all this equipment in hospitals, where you have an x-ray or any procedure, would of had an engineer involved to develop the machine that has helped cure patients, it gives a broader impression early on to children of the wide possibility of this career. 

When you view engineering as a narrow discipline, the chances are that it is not communicated in the most exciting way to students either. Some universities are offering narrow degrees - this inevitably means they are restricting their pool of applicants to a narrow remit. (Tiina Roose, professor of biological and environmental modelling, University of Southampton)

Improve careers advice
With the rise in tuition fees many more young people and their parents are looking much more carefully into the job and career opportunities relating to the choice of university degree subject - and indeed the alternative of taking an apprenticeship route instead. With the existent and growing shortage of engineering skills, this should present an attractive career option for many young people. However, there continues to be a problem with the perception of engineering as a career, and in particular the relevance and context of the maths and science that young people study at school.

Students need exposure to industry and careers information at the stages at which they are making choices. This must initially be well before GCSEs but also continuously thereafter. Universities need to do more to partner with industry and local schools to make this happen, providing students with hands-on, work-related experience, access to recent graduates/apprentices, demonstrating the exciting contribution engineering makes to current and future issues and how the university engineering degrees will lead to rewarding jobs. (Gordon Mizner, chief executive, Engineering Development Trust)

More financial support
To keep up with the demand for skills we need to nearly double the number of engineering graduates every year. Many initiatives over the past 30 years have failed to significantly increase numbers and diversity. A recent report estimated an increase of £27bn of GDP if we could meet the need for engineers. Medical and nursing students, crucial to our country's wellbeing, receive financial support from government. A similar approach must be taken - slashing tuition fees for engineering courses and providing bursaries to help with living costs. (Meg Munn MP, vice-chair for the all-party parliamentary engineering group)

Sector-wide contribution to training engineers
"As Kel Fidler describes in his report, Sorting out Engineering, the great problem in the UK is that we are not able to use all parts of higher education, and indeed further education, to drive forward engineering education. (There is clear evidence of the binary divide still existing between the former polytechnics and the pre-92 universities.) Until the whole sector is able to contribute to the education of engineers and technicians, the UK will not meet its diverse needs.

At the University of Sheffield we have established a scheme that attracts 200 new apprentices a year. We've created routes through to master's level that enable those with the ability and appetite to progress eventually to a chartered engineer. And we've invested more than £90m in a state-of-the-art teaching building for undergraduates that will provided large-scale facilities for practical education. Through this, and other activities, our application rates for undergraduate engineering are up 25% on last year. (Professor Mike Hounslow, pro vice-chancellor, faculty of engineering, University of Sheffield)

Better coordinated initiatives
There are many things universities can do to change the stereotype of engineers who are often described as "geeky, good at maths, always have a calculator and drawings in their hands and wear overcoats and helmets etc". To start with we can invite the schoolchildren to our laboratories to let them experience some of the exciting hands-on experiments for a taste of engineering. We teamed up with companies such as Thames Water and regularly invited schoolchildren to London South Bank University in a scheme called Engineering Challenge - the children who took part absolutely loved it. 

Professional institutions can also do more. The ICE's "bridge to school" project, where schoolchildren assembled suspension bridges with the help of young graduate engineers was successful in many English and Welsh schools. There are already many good initiatives out there, but they could be better coordinated to ensure the messages go through to the right audience. (David Tann, head of the department of urban engineering, London South Bank University)

Increase industry collaborations
Clearly the UK needs to maintain a pipeline of qualified engineers, not least for the advancement of the discipline, but also for the benefit of the economy. EPSRC funds postgraduates across the engineering and physical sciences, but without a supply of undergraduates our task will be harder. We would urge the government and universities to consider making the study of engineering easier through financial incentives and industry collaborations. (Professor Philip Nelson, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council)
 
http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/jan/20/eight-ways-encourage-students-study-engineering 

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