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Engineering degrees should be open to arts and humanities students, says professor

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Conference speakers call for greater open-mindedness among academics as part of change of approach to help curb UK’s ‘skills emergency’.

The gateway into a career in engineering should no longer be barred to students who opt to study arts and humanities A-levels, the organisation that is the voice of the profession in UK higher education yesterday declared.

Professor Sarah Spurgeon, the Engineering Professors’ Council’s incoming President, called on academics to address what she described as an “impending skills emergency” in Britain, where most universities still largely restrict entry into engineering degrees to students with STEM subject A-levels.

UCL - one of the few higher education institutions in the country that does allow some applicants with only arts and humanities grades onto specialist interdisciplinary engineering courses - is regarded as an exception in environment where those students who opted to take subjects such as philosophy or art at age 16 are still viewed with a good deal of suspicion among many heads of engineering departments.

Prof Spurgeon suggested tempting increased numbers of creative-minded students onto engineering degree courses could help foster more imaginative solutions to pressing real-world problems.

She told delegates at a conference at the IET’s Savoy Place building in London: “You need maths and physics to be a good engineer, but these are things we can teach and they are not all you need.

“We need students with the imagination to dream a better world and the skills to build it.”

The conference, attended by speakers from the USA and Canada as well as from institutions around the UK, was intended to help universities turn out graduates more suited to the future needs of industry and society.

Karen Usher, co-project leader and director of the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering, which is creating a brand new university in the English county of Herefordshire, said good communication skills were among the attributes possessed by humanities graduates which could prove useful in an engineering context.

After the conference she told E&T: “They can communicate effectively, they can think creatively, they can describe problems and they can motivate people.”

Richard Miller, a conference delegate from Olin College of Engineering in the US, said his institution has abolished academic departments as part of a revolutionary approach to higher education intended to furnish students with a more interdisciplinary experience.

A greater diversity in the college system in the US means more applicants for places on engineering degree courses there have a humanities background than is the case in Britain.

The IET’s 2016 annual survey of skills and demand in industry showed that, despite a rise in demand for engineering staff, 62 per cent of UK employers found many new engineering graduates had significant skills gaps.

In addition, 68 per cent expressed concern that the education system would struggle to keep pace with the skills required amid rapid technological change.

The organisers of the conference want universities in the UK and further afield to change their entry criteria and strip away current roadblocks for students who have studied humanities or arts subjects in place of maths and physics to an advanced level at school.

They are also pushing for a “refocusing” of the higher-education curriculum away from “theory” towards more practical teaching.

This could take the form of increased numbers of internships, placements and work-related learning opportunities. It is also hoped those in charge of structuring and delivering higher education will make their courses more accessible to women and mature students in order to make the engineering profession more diverse.

Professor Jeremy Watson, President of the IET, said: “There is an urgent need to get more young people studying engineering, but we’re currently excluding vast numbers of students because they have not formally studied maths and physics. 

“This is an outdated view that we need to change. We’re not saying that these subjects aren’t important, but the role of an engineer is about solving creative challenges so we must also harness students’ creativity.

“The important principles of maths and physics can be taught in a relevant ‘work-ready’ way as part of a degree. It is also crucially important that engineering courses refocus on teaching problem solving and creating solutions to improve our world and society.

“This should also include an element of high-quality work experience so that students are adequately prepared for the workplace and are equipped with the skills employers demand.” 

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