Are the best universities producing the best engineers?
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What does the perfect engineering graduate look like? It appears that UK universities might not always have the same understanding of this important question as engineering and technology companies.
According to the latest IET Skills and Demand Survey, not only are UK technology and engineering companies concerned about the well-documented engineering skills shortage but nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of respondents say they have encountered candidates entering the job market with good academic knowledge but lacking the required practical work-related skills.
Tim Baker, professorial teaching fellow at the Department of Mechanical Engineering of University College London (UCL), was once one of those industry professionals struggling with practically unprepared graduates.
“I used to work in the motorsport industry for many years, developing engines for Formula One and other racing cars,” he says. “I used to employ graduates quite a lot. It would frequently take up to six months before they could do anything useful and be really productive. You would have to teach them the methods, the design protocols, and introduce them quite gradually into the process.”
An alumnus of UCL Mechanical Engineering himself, Baker was lured back to the university some six years ago. He accepted the offer almost reluctantly, but with the vision of changing how engineering is being taught at UCL.
“In engineering you can’t ‘fake it till you make it’,” he says. “You can go and do all sorts of fancy presentations, analysis and theory, but you can’t hide when you actually have to make some sort of a device that has to work.”
At that time, Baker says, UCL was already aware of a perplexing trend. Many of the university’s best graduates would frequently be beaten when interviewing for their dream jobs by counterparts from far less prestigious universities.
“I think there is a danger for students of top universities,” says Baker. “They think that just the reputation of the university will open the door for them. Unfortunately, we have witnessed some really capable students really not doing very well in their job interviews because of the lack of practical experience.”
Ben Hodgkinson is the head of product engineering at Ilmor Engineering, a Northamptonshire-based company that develops engines for Formula One racing cars. Employing over 500 people, the company cannot complain about the shortage of applicants. Hodgkinson, however, says that despite the company’s obvious prestige, it doesn’t appear to be employing too many engineers from the UK’s most prestigious universities.
“We take on about 20 graduates a year and we have over 900 applications,” says Hodgkinson. “We read all of their CVs, but we don’t consider anyone who has no practical experience, even if they have exceptional academic qualifications. We have a surprisingly low number of Oxford or Cambridge graduates. We have one or two, but they are often post-graduates and have done a PhD, which has included quite a lot of practical work.”
He lists the universities of Loughborough and Bath among the traditional strongholds supplying the company with high-quality practically minded engineers. Quite a lot of staff, he says, also comes from Europe.
Ed Collings, head of composites and structural analysis at Red Bull Advanced Technologies, also a leading motorsport engineering company, agrees with Hodgkinson: “I’d rather employ someone who has got some hands-on experience than the best academic qualifications,” he says. “People can achieve good academic grades but that does not necessarily mean that they will have a natural gift for engineering. People who have done a lot of tinkering in the shed, building motorbikes, racing go-karts, they have a clearer personal passion for engineering, and they will learn faster.”
He adds that such candidates, with a lifelong passion for all things DIY, are rare to find these days, as children increasingly grow up attached to their iPads and mobile phones.
Collings also lists another unlikely contender among the schools reliably generating good-quality talent – the University of Hertfordshire.
What do Hertfordshire, Loughborough and Bath have in common? According to the World University Rankings by Times Higher Education, Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London are traditionally the highest placing UK universities in the engineering and technology field, all of them making the top ten. UCL comes fourth among UK institutions, usually placing within the global top 40. Bath places in the first half of the second hundred, Loughborough in the third hundred. The University of Hertfordshire doesn’t rank at all.
There is, however, another university ranking, which, in fact, interests many engineering employers more than the academic ranking. Hertfordshire, Loughborough and Bath traditionally rank high in the Formula Student competition, which challenges engineering students to build racing cars – within one year, from scratch, electric or combustion-engine powered – and race them against competitors from all over the world. In the 2019 UK event, for example, Loughborough placed fourth, Hertfordshire ninth and Bath 15th. The best UK team, from Oxford Brookes University, came second. On the other hand, Cambridge University placed 43rd, Imperial College London 48th and UCL 68th. Oxford University didn’t compete at all.
Hodgkinson confirms that experience from practical projects such as Formula Student interests him greatly when scanning the candidates’ CVs. “Especially graduates from some of the European universities tend to have really much more detailed descriptions of what they did in Formula Student,” he says. “That gives me a good idea of what they can do.”
Gordana Collier, head of the School of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics at Oxford Brookes, said that the competition “plays a pivotal role in the preparation of the university’s students for industry”. The project is done on a voluntary basis. The university, however, observes that students involved in Formula Student or other large-scale practical projects perform better academically as well.
The university has also noticed the effect participation in such projects has on the ability of the graduates to land graduate jobs with the most prestigious companies.
“Having a final project that showcases learning and achievement from extra-curricular activities gives students the opportunity to perform very well in interviews,” says Collier, who is also the principal academic advisor for the Oxford Brookes racing team. “Not only do they have that extra, relevant interest but also the interview inevitably ends up being about an area where they are experts, rather than the other way around.”
The university’s students, Collier says, are regularly invited to apply for jobs at Ferrari, and frequently succeed at interviews with Mercedes HPP, BMW or Renault F1.
“The university doesn’t see Formula Student as a ‘side-project’, but an integral part of the teaching and development of its students,” says Collier. “This means people land from day one wanting to be part of something special and to make a difference.”
Ben Metcalfe, who is a lecturer at the Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering at the University of Bath and an academic supervisor of the university’s electric Formula Student team, agrees that participation in Formula Student creates the most sought-after graduates.
“Especially the students that lead the teams are very employable and very successful when they go to the industry,” he says. “They leave Bath having managed a project with a budget of over £100,000 and a group of 40 to 50 students. They have designed or built in a year an incredibly complex vehicle and they have travelled all around the world with it.”
Bath now builds three types of Formula Student cars – a traditional one with a combustion engine, an electric car, and this year for the first time also a driverless car. The competition, Metcalfe says, also offers an opportunity to the industry to get involved, spot talent and help develop the skills needed in the workplace.
“We have one particular sponsor where maybe up to 50 per cent of their workforce are Bath graduates from both the electric and the combustion Formula Student teams,” he says.
Bath and Oxford Brookes have established sponsorships and cooperations with the industry, frequently with local SMEs. The support, according to Metcalfe, may involve financial donations, services, materials, the use of facilities or expert advice.
“We have been incredibly fortunate with the industry support when we started building our electric car a few years ago,” he says. “I think that’s because, as the vehicle market goes through the electrification process, more and more companies are really interested in developing both electric powertrains and the students and graduates who would develop them and work on them.”
Tim Baker hopes to replicate the same at UCL. However, with a team that has so far struggled to build a vehicle in time and haven’t always managed to complete the race without a fault, the pitch to potential sponsors is more difficult.
“We first had to get our engineering up to scratch,” he says. “But we have certainly come a long way over the past few years.”
In fact, UCL has only this year opened a proper mechanical engineering facility complete with workshops, tools and design equipment.
“Previously, we would keep the car in an underground car park and when someone wanted to work on it they would have to take it out of the car park and bring it into a crammed shared workshop,” says Baker.
Instead of relying on industry partners to sponsor a competitive engineering project, Baker decided to draw the industry in directly, by inviting representatives to give talks or supervise smaller design projects and competitions. The approach is already bearing fruit and the UCL Mechanical Engineering Department is seeing more companies wanting to talk to its graduates.
“Even high-tech engineering companies like McLaren or Williams are now talking to us about graduates whereas they weren’t previously,” he says. “We also now have got a lot of companies that want to do collaborations, which is something we didn’t have previously, so that is definitely growing.”
Hodgkinson is one of the industry professionals who now come to UCL once a month to help develop the practical industry-related skills of the university’s mechanical engineering students. He says Ilmor would certainly be interested in getting involved with more universities but hasn’t seen much interest.
“Our HR department has some dedicated people trying to reach out to the different universities,” he says. “We are talking to our engineers that are alumni of certain universities and trying to reach out with that connection. But the only time I have seen it coming the other way is from UCL.”
Collier says that Oxford Brookes consults the university’s Industrial Advisory Board on curriculum development and works with individual members on “specific ideas brought by them to the table”. The Industrial Advisory Board member companies in turn frequently sponsor the university’s extra-curricular projects. She says the university is also actively reaching out to various Formula One teams to discuss the competence they are looking for.
On the other hand, she says that universities in general tend to be under financial pressure, which forces them to deliver to large groups with shorter contact time, which may, in many cases, negatively affect the quality of skills the graduates develop.
The European way
The odd discrepancy between academic ranking and results in high-profile practical engineering competitions, such as Formula Student, doesn’t exist in Europe. The three traditionally highest-ranking European universities in the engineering and technology field are, according to the Times Higher Education ranking, the Swiss ETH Zurich and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), together with the Dutch Delft University of Technology. All three regularly place in the top 20. ETH Zurich and Delft are also traditionally among the most successful teams in Formula Student.
Professor Rob Mudde, who is the vice president of education at Delft University of Technology, explains that Delft, while being a traditional research-focused university, has always paid attention to developing close links with the industry. Not only is up to 40 per cent of PhD research sponsored or co-sponsored by industrial partners, but all Master’s programmes and many Bachelor’s programmes have an industry advisory committee providing input on trends and skills required in the industry.
“When we ask them what we could improve, they frequently mention soft skills,” Mudde says. “They seem to be happy with the level of technical skills that we teach, but they want the students to be reflective and contextual thinkers. They say that in the past they could afford to train the graduates for two years, to make sure they develop those skills, but they don’t have time to do that any more and require the graduates to deliver much more quickly.”
Engineering competitions, such as Formula Student or the Solar Challenge, which asks students to build a fully solar-powered vehicle, play an integral part in helping the Delft students develop the required teamwork and creative problem-solving skills.
While these competitions are not part of the curriculum, students virtually compete for spots on what Mudde calls the university’s ‘dream teams’. “Those students work a full year on such a project and their single assignment is to make sure that they win the race,” he says. “We built facilities for them, equipped with all the required machinery, which are open 24 hours a day. We provide them with a little bit of funding to start with and technical support and advice if they need, and the rest is up to them.”
The popularity of these engineering challenges in the Netherlands and media coverage generated by successful teams is such that sponsors are eager to partner with the student projects. Among the traditional sponsors of the Delft racing team are industry heavyweights such as Volkswagen and Siemens. The dream team members, Mudde adds, frequently get snapped up by prestigious employers such as Tesla. “It was very easy to establish these industry cooperations,” he says. “The students get most of the money they need from the industry and these are rather large sums.”
According to Bath University’s Metcalfe, the difference in the level of financial support and industry involvement between the best UK and best teams in the rest of Europe is clearly visible at international meets, with even the best British teams coming off as the poor relations. “They have teams of hundreds of students and cars almost above Formula One quality and complexity,” he remarks. “The level of industry engagement from the big companies is really high, and they frequently allow their engineering students to do their placement year working for the Formula Student team. It almost runs like a separate company.”
This is the case for the racing team of ETH Zurich, which is supported by BMW Group among others. The team is first in the world Formula Student Electric ranking.
Both Switzerland and the Netherlands do report an engineering skills gap. The top universities in both countries are, however, actively working to supply the industry with the right skills.
According to ETH Zurich’s rector Professor Sarah M Springman, the university uses input from advisory boards composed of representatives from society and business to form the engineering curricula, and regularly surveys the school’s alumni.
Delft’s Professor Mudde, in the meantime, is touring around the Netherlands, and quite surprisingly around the UK too, to learn from companies and institutions how to “make the university’s graduates more successful in society”.
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