Educating tomorrow's engineers - how do Britain's schools and universities compare with those in the rest of the world?
Some call it a crisis, others merely express deep concerns. But everyone agrees that engineering education in the UK is facing significant challenges.
The list of worries always begins with the skills gap: Britain requires 110,000 science, engineering and technology graduates a year, but only produces around two-thirds of this number. And with 41 per cent of UK engineering companies planning to expand, that gap is likely to widen.
So where are the problems in the UK, how does Britain compare to its competitor nations, and what changes should be considered?
The image problem
"Our biggest negative is the way that we don't value the contribution that engineers make," says Andy Mitchell, assistant chief executive of the Design and Technology Association.
"If you're an engineer in France, Germany and Austria you are right up there with lawyers and doctors. Engineers in the UK have never felt that degree of status."
This discourages youngsters from taking an interest in engineering, he says; while the lack of UK politicians with an engineering background means "the decision makers don't understand it and don't value it".
Mitchell believes early intervention is the key. He was instrumental in rewriting the design and technology national curriculum programmes of study. This now states that Key Stage 1 pupils (aged five to seven) should work in "a range of relevant contexts" one of which is "industry".
"Even at the tender age of five or six, you start developing your understanding of the world of work and thinking about the sorts of things you might be doing," he says.
But "too many primary and secondary schools almost manage to extinguish the prototype engineering ability latent in young children", according to 'Thinking like an Engineer - Implications for the Education System', a report by the University of Winchester's Centre for Real World Learning.
Dr John Naylon, founder and chief technology officer at Cambridge Broadband Networks Ltd (CBNL), agrees.
"On balance, I believe more needs to be done in the UK to increase the appeal of engineering from an earlier age," he says.
"It is clear to me that engineering offers fantastic higher education and career prospects, but I fear when it comes to attracting students into the system, we may be losing high calibre prospects to other professions."
The Design and Technology Association champions D&T education in schools. However, Mitchell warns that a lack of teachers, resources and staff development is hampering the training of future engineers.
"In the 30-odd years I've been involved in technology education, I've never seen it as bad as this. I really do fear for the subject.
"Once you've lost it, and those workshops have been turned into classrooms and the expertise has gone, it'll take decades, if ever, to rebuild it."
The shortage of D&T teachers means "we have an impending crisis on our hands", he adds. "Last year we only managed to recruit 49 per cent to target of the necessary design and technology teachers, to replace all the vacancies. We were the most under-recruited subject on the curriculum."
He said there are only 420 prospective D&T teaching students for 720 places starting this academic year. And he believes "a relatively small percentage of those will be coming with a degree in engineering".
The move to the Schools Direct model - which sees student teachers learn "on the job" in schools - could see more long-established D&T teacher training courses follow those at Loughborough, Exeter and the Open Universities onto the scrapheap. The result is a loss of collective bodies of expertise.
Experienced teachers, meanwhile, are offered little continuing professional development. Mitchell says many are not up to date on using industry standard solid modelling software, for example.
The announcement this summer that British exam regulator Ofqual plans to scrap GCSEs and A levels in engineering after 2017 "is indicative of how the value of engineering is seen", he adds.
Inspirational teachers are hugely important, agrees Alexa Glick, the founder of Skype's diversity initiative Codess, an engineering forum for women.
"Who your teacher or lecturer is throughout school and university has a huge effect on the professional choices we make in life. The government needs to provide continued support to teachers that will enable them to inspire students within the science and engineering curriculum," she says.
Vincent English, managing director of Vernier Europe, which makes data-capture devices for use in science lessons, says: "It is important to engage the digital-savvy generation of the 21st century. There is now plenty of software available for schools that enables students to conduct experiments and scientific research using portable devices, helping to bring science to life through technology."
Another option is the introduction of University Technical Colleges (UTCs) for 14 to 18-year-olds, championed by former education secretary Lord Baker.
According to the Engineering UK 2014 report, 17 of these UTCs are open with a further 27 approved. Altogether 35 have a specialism in engineering.
The UK's universities have a generally good reputation for engineering courses - but there is a feeling that they could do better, particularly at producing graduates who are ready for work.
The IET Skills Survey found 44 per cent of employers stating that engineering, IT and technical recruits did not meet reasonable expectations for levels of skill.
"The top four or five universities are already global institutions, so they're doing fairly well," says Ilian Iliev, CEO of EcoMachines Incubator, a startup accelerator specialising in engineering and hardware technology innovations.
"I feel a lot can be done to help the next level of universities to connect more with industry, and to help upgrade the quality of its university graduates."
CBNL's Dr Naylon considers the UK to be among the world's leading engineering generalists. His company is one of many to have its roots in the local university system.
"Industry-led hubs such as this play a fundamental role, not just in linking education with industry, but also in ensuring that those engineers put their talents to use within the UK, rather than pursuing opportunities overseas," he says.
The gender gap
According to the IET Skills Survey, only six per cent of UK engineers are women. And as nearly half of UK state schools had no girls taking A level physics in 2013, the STEM gender gap shows little sign of shrinking.
Glick, a champion of diversity in the industry, was the only woman in her computer science university class and felt "extremely alienated".
"Universities would benefit from offering mentorship to nurture and sustain interest in computing and engineering throughout an individual's education," she says.
Her own community, Codess, delivers events and workshops for women software engineers starting at university level.
Glick says the UK should follow the lead of US universities that are pioneering programmes focused on educating women in engineering. "At Harvey Mudd College in particular, women represented nearly half of the engineering graduates for the first time this year."
Engineering around the world: country reports
French engineers are still educated in schools of engineers after the baccalaureate – very few come from universities. Of around 160 schools of engineers, a few are known as ‘grand schools’ and are supported by government ministries including defence and industry. Their fees are much lower than those charged by the private schools.
France has around 600,000 engineers, of whom 400,000 have diplomas. They are joined by 30,000 students who receive their engineering diploma every year.
Most diplomas are obtained after five years of education, which includes two years training. In recent years more schools have developed a masters degree.
“Germany is a leader in engineering education,” says EcoMachines Incubator’s Iliev. “To understand why, we need to look at the country’s industrialisation history, the role of the state, the Mittelstand, the apprenticeship model, policy choices.”
Because education is run on a much more vocational model, a university degree does not have the same cachet as in other European countries.
Engineering education is delivered by 42 universities and 99 universities of applied sciences. There has been a move away from the diploma system to bachelor and master degrees, although students complain that it is still incompatible with courses in other European countries.
Germany had a shortage of 36,000 engineers in 2013, according to the Association of German Engineers.
Technology is a compulsory school subject, although the government’s school inspectorate has been very critical of the way technology has been hidden away in the curriculum.
A programme, which saw 15-year-olds complete a three- or four-year engineering course leading to a job, was abolished in 1992. A new version was introduced as a pilot in 2011, with a one-year conversion course for those who have completed the three-year technology programme.
There will be an estimated shortfall of 50,000 engineers in Sweden by 2030. To encourage students to take up engineering, the government has initiated a project called Tekniksprånget (the technology leap) to link industry and universities, and has expanded the number of places available on the gold standard five-year masters course.
In China education is free until 15. More affluent city families will pay for children to go to high school where they study for the gaokao, or National University Entrance Examinations. Rote learning and a focus on maths and science is the norm.
Students taking a four-year engineering degree spend most of the time in the classroom with some laboratory work.
According to UNESCO, China has 1.3 million engineering graduates per year, including 650,000 university graduates – although this figure is disputed by some.
In China, 40 per cent of engineers are women.
China’s ten-year education reform plan places much greater emphasis on vocational education. Universities will take pupils from vocational schools as well as regular high schools. The gaokao system will have two tests, one for technically-inclined students and another for academic ones.
About 600 local universities will be transformed into higher-education vocational colleges. By the time the reform is in place, up to 80 per cent of the country’s higher education institutes will be geared toward vocational training.
China plans to widen engineering education to properly cover practical engineering and to encourage students to ask questions in and out of the classroom.
Tsinghua University in China is ranked third in Asia for engineering and technology.
Much of the USA’s prosperity has been on the back of its engineering excellence, powered by its higher education system. A varied array of institutions – from small community colleges through to the likes of Harvard and MIT, driven forward by a risk-taking, entrepreneurial culture – has seen the US establish a world-leading reputation in engineering education.
However, this dominant position is being challenged by the rise in graduate engineers in China and India.
The US Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has therefore developed a new approach allowing engineering schools more flexibility to update their curricula and to introduce innovations.
This hasn’t been entirely successful. From 1990 to 2010, overall college graduation levels in the US have grown about 50 per cent, but during that same period the number of engineering graduates has stagnated at around 120,000.
In response, the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness announced that 45 industry leaders had committed to double the engineering internships available at their companies in 2012. This was part of a national effort to address the engineering shortage by graduating 10,000 more engineering students from US colleges and universities each year.
Italy has a total of about 540,000 engineering graduates. To earn an engineering degree, students must complete five years of studies at polytechnic universities. In addition, two-year master degrees of five-year doctorate programmes provide the title Dottore in ingegneria.
Workers without degrees, but with some engineering experience, can undertake technician tasks, but only a graduate engineer can take legal responsibility for an engineering project.
The downturn in Italy has hit manufacturing particularly hard. According to business association Confindustria, more than 120,000 Italian manufacturers have closed and 1.2 million industrial jobs have disappeared since the start of the century.
Thirteen Indian Institutes of Technology across the country are seen as centres of excellence. About 300,000 students take the admission exam, but only 4,000 get in. There are also 20 National Institutes of Technology. Estimated engineering graduate numbers for India vary from 120,000 to one million.
According to an analysis for UNESCO, “the Indian engineering education system is characterised by: the preponderance of private (self-financing) colleges, about 80 per cent of all colleges; acute faculty shortages, a deficit of about 40,000 places; acute shortages of PhDs, about 15,000; acute shortages of MTech graduates, about 30,000; meagre production of PhDs; and an internal brain drain”.
Industry is working with universities to improve graduates’ skills and enhance their employability.
Singapore’s education system sees students taking O and A levels at school. Engineering graduates enrol at polytechnics on three-year diploma courses, and can go on to study at university. About 20,000 graduate with science and engineering degrees and diplomas each year, but there are concerns that the brightest shun the subject for law, medicine and finance.
The Ministry of Education is encouraging industry to work closely in schools. The innovative Renaissance Engineering Programme at Nanyang Technological University has a multi-disciplinary approach bridging engineering, business and the arts.
Between 2006 and 2011, the supply of qualified engineers in Australia grew by 5.6 per cent per year to nearly 264,000 people, 31,000 of whom were women.
Nearly 80 per cent of engineers have a degree, which takes four years to gain, with about 10 per cent holding a masters.
In 2012 the government introduced a ‘demand-driven’ system, lifting the limit on undergraduate places and allowing universities to respond to demand. Early evidence suggests this has stemmed the high growth in students applying for places on engineering courses.
Engineer David Jennings studied at the University of New South Wales and works at Sydney University. He says there are concerns that Australia is not producing enough home-grown talent, and there’s pressure from business to allow in more temporary skilled workers from overseas.
An interactive Google Map for the countries listed above is available online
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