Skills Shortages: 'Lowering Tuition Fees Is Not The Answer'
24th February 2015
You've heard the call - the UK needs more engineers. Our economy needs at least twice as many engineering workers, apprentices, technicians and professionals - high quality graduate professionals who can lead businesses and industry. But we won't get these by lowering fees for engineering degrees, by taking the cap off student numbers or promoting engineering through schools outreach.
The key issue facing engineering is none of these. As stated repeatedly over the years, and recently by Lord Browne, chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering: "People think they know what engineering is but the evidence is they don't - and in the UK the evidence is that we are very, very bad at telling them."
Engineering needs a makeover - one that reveals its excitement and true value to society.
Discounting fees will not work; successive fee hikes attempting to produce a differentiated market have failed because lower fees spell second-rate degrees.
No vice-chancellor will accept reduced fee income for one of higher education's most expensive subjects without a guaranteed government refund - one that would not be rolled into the block grant and forgotten. The answer is to offer scholarships, but applicants need to be convinced that they want to study engineering.
Uncapping student numbers will not increase the number of good quality engineering students, who will apply anyway. It will simply open the gates wider and court mediocrity.
Schools outreach has been going on for years, but with no significant effect. The graph shows UK university applicant numbers in recent years together with engineering course applicants (upscaled by 10 for comparison). Both traces vary similarly reflecting demographic trends and the effect of changes to fees. The numbers are not clearly heading for a timely doubling, particularly since universities are fighting a 14% reduction in 18 year-olds numbers over this decade.
The graduate engineer challenge can only be met by increasing the proportion of all university applicants that choose engineering.
The third trace shows that proportion has varied little from approximately 3.5% for many years, and the rise since 2007-08 is very slow.
Despite the huge number of school outreach projects over many years encouraging more young people into engineering and the vast resources expended, there has been no significant effect - a sobering observation.
Last year Ofqual consulted on a proposal to remove engineering qualifications at GCSE and A-level. Low take-up of the subject was a contributory factor, which clearly underlines the problem.
Despite this, school outreach initiatives continue, seldom with targets, metrics and reviews to establish effectiveness. As Einstein said: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results".
Some say that "it does no harm". Yet, in a recent letter to the Royal Academy of Engineering magazine, Dr Graham Bray, Beacon Academy's Stem director, commented on an externally-organised engineering day for 60 year 9 students noting "the projects were to be built essentially from scrap - bits of dowel, paper cups, masking tape, etc. The majority of projects didn't work, and it was frustrating to see the final products. Is this the image that we want our students to have of engineers - that they produce stuff from scrap that doesn't actually work?"
It is generally acknowledged that people are influential in determining the subject choice of their children going into higher education. If they wanted to become a doctor, vet, dentist, lawyer or accountant, parents would have no problem recognising the standing and nature of these professions.
But to most people, an engineer repairs domestic appliances, installs broadband and services cars; most people have no interaction in their daily lives with professional engineers, and thus cannot give informed advice. Why go to university to get a blue collar job?
Further public misunderstanding of engineering is caused by the media which confuses science and engineering, often attributing engineering achievement to science (the Rosetta mission which landed the Philae module on comet 67P being a recent example).
Engineering is frequently presented as part of science, when the converse is true - professional engineers make use of science and maths as tools alongside finance, problem solving, design, quality, law, management, ethics, risk and sustainability.
Add the misunderstanding of engineering's relationship with technology, the overuse of the acronym Stem (now used as shorthand for science), the confounding aspects of the Engineering Council's designations "chartered engineer", "incorporated engineer" or "registered engineer" when we mean "professional engineer" (as used worldwide), you see why Lord Browne's statement is so right.
A rebranding of engineering is needed so people understand its approach to creativity, design and innovation bringing us our food, drink, energy, transport, buildings, communications, IT, clothes, entertainment - indeed all aspects of our lives.
We need a sustained marketing campaign to sell engineering to the public through the media and product branding; we need to engage those working in the media in a better understanding of engineering so they deliver the correct messages.
The engineering profession must clarify its organisation and the terms it uses; and academia must reformulate engineering education away from what has been described as the "mind-numbing math-science death march that casts aside thousands of capable young people who might otherwise have made effective engineers".
Government must fully support such a rebranding campaign if it is not going to be too late in sustaining and growing the estimated engineering sector 27.1% contribution to GDP.
A coordinated task force of can-do individuals must be identified to take it forward. Where from? Well, with 36 professional engineering institutions and many other bodies including The Royal Academy of Engineering, EngineeringUK, Womens' Engineering Society, Engineering Council, Engineering Professors' Council and so on, the pool is huge.
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