It’s time to rethink the entry requirements for engineering degrees

Compulsory A levels in maths and physics is contributing to the problem of low engineering enrolments, especially among female students, argues Elena Rodriguez-Falcon

June 25, 2018
Female engineer
Source: iStock

NMiTE, the specialist future engineering university, will be launching in Hereford in autumn 2019, and our firm aim is that at least half of our initial intake of 350 students will be female. 

Hardly a radical ambition, some might think, given that half the population is female. Yet last year only 15 per cent of engineering undergraduates and 11 per cent of engineers in work were women. It has proven easier to get women into orbit than lifting the proportion of women entering engineering courses at the UK’s universities.

There are regular attempts to persuade more teenage pupils to take mathematics and physics A levels, which are compulsory requirements for every engineering degree in the UK. Sadly, they have failed so far, yet hopefully they will succeed one day. But what are we to do in the meantime, other than lament the situation?

It is time to recognise that the dogmatic insistence on these subjects is at the heart of the problem with attracting insufficient people into engineering, and to rethink the whole approach. Instead of trying just to catch girls at 14 and 15, which has proven a forlorn hope, we need to catch talented people once they start thinking seriously about careers in the sixth form. 

Currently, it is already too late for them. By contrast, taking away the entrenched requirement of these A levels for entry into an engineering degree programme will allow them to become engineers, as long as there are catch-up courses within the degree for those without maths and physics. 

This is exactly what NMiTE will be doing when it launches next year, and I urge other universities to review the overly restrictive requirement for students to have A-level maths and physics. 

It is worth noting that Brunel, Eiffel, and George and Robert Stevenson, to name a few engineering titans, did not have an A level in maths. However, they were no doubt excellent mathematicians, which just shows that this is not the only way of doing things. In NMiTE’s case, we will be doing it through recruiting the right people with the grit and determination to learn maths as part of their degree.

It is not just about encouraging more women into engineering, although that is one of our aims. The same argument applies to others who would make excellent engineers, such as former armed forces personnel or indeed young men who just did not understand the importance of calculus and trigonometry when choosing their A-level subjects.

It should be noted that there is a dire shortage of engineering graduates and that the UK has an estimated shortfall of 40,000. Closing this gap is essential if the country is to have the high-value skills needed for a successful modern economy. NMiTE is being created to help address this problem with a radical new approach and a curriculum that combines the best innovations from leading universities around the world.

But challenging orthodoxy should not be just down to us. NMiTE is all about working in collaboration, not competition, with others and I would like to invite other faculties to look at what we are doing over the next couple of years. I certainly hope that it will inspire established universities to consider whether traditional ways and attitudes also need a second look.

Can removing the maths A-level requirement be done without dumbing down the engineering profession? Quite frankly, I think that has already happened through the limited pool who are eligible to apply for engineering degrees.

Our approach of wanting smart people with the right aptitude and attitude to become engineers, rather than drawing only from the limited numbers of sixth-formers taking maths and science, is radical in the context of England, but not elsewhere.

The approach in England and Wales for the past 60 years is out of step when you look internationally, including Scotland, where the syllabus for its equivalent of A levels is not as specialised. 

In fact, the insistence on A-level maths and physics in England is out of step with much of the world, and it is now time for this to change.

Elena Rodriguez-Falcon is acting CEO and provost of NMiTE, Britain’s engineering university being created in Hereford.

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Reader's comments (2)

The Engineering Professors' Council has reached the same conclusion as Prof Rodriguez-Falcon that the entry requirements to engineering need to be broader. While the ability to apply Maths and Physics remains important – more in some engineering courses than others – having A levels in those subjects is not the only marker of potential. As she points out, given the numbers taking Physics A level – especially women students – the imposition of this usually unnecessary obstacle does little for students, for engineering or for skill shortages. It may be right for some universities, particularly those with a highly theoretical approach to engineering, not to change their entry requirements, but most engineering departments are already exploring other approaches. We need courses with diverse entry requirements to encourage a diverse range of students. That is how we'll encourage innovative courses – such as those at NMiTE – and produce innovative engineers. Innovation in engineering higher education will require more than just a change in entry requirements though. In collaboration with the Institution of Engineering & Technology, the Engineering Professors' Council has been leading an initiative to create a blueprint for new approaches. We recently published 'SIx Facets' (see http://epc.ac.uk/new-approaches-to-engineering-he-the-six-facets/) which are precursors of innovation. NMiTE is just one of many universities in the UK that is already embracing several of these strategies. The challenge for UK engineering HE has probably never been greater, but when faced with a challenge, you can rely on engineers to roll their sleeves up. Johnny Rich Chief Executive, Engineering Professors' Council
Although I applaud the sentiment of the article and agree a diversity of approaches is needed the statement that "...mathematics and physics A levels, which are compulsory requirements for every engineering degree in the UK" is simply untrue. There is flexibility in entry requirements, for example we have not required A-level Physics at University of Birmingham for many years, and for those who do not have A-level Maths there are Foundation Year and 'catch-up' maths support options. We have a steady improvement in gender balance in UG Engineering and highlight that graduate recruitment actually favors our female graduates.

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