Degree of optimism as engineering on the up

August 14, 2008

Despite growing fears for the future of engineering, degree courses are enjoying a surge of popularity, according to a report from the Engineering and Technology Board.

The number of applications to engineering and technology courses rose by 7 per cent between 2002 and 2007, according to the report. This compares with just 0.08 per cent for science, technology and mathematics (STEM) subjects as a whole.

Acceptances to engineering and technology degrees have also risen 1.3 per cent over the same period, and the number of graduates has grown by 2.29 per cent.

The report, written by Anil Kumar, director of education and skills at the Engineering and Technology Board, said: "Taken as a whole - and while we should not be complacent - our analysis shows a positive underlying message for engineering.

Across all measures - applications, acceptances and degrees achieved - the trends in the supply of engineering are giving cause for optimism.

"This is especially positive given the increased competition from the rising level of subject choice available at first-degree level.

"Moreover, the international attractiveness of UK engineering courses is also evident. Compared to all other subjects it manages to attract a much higher proportion of non-EU applicants."

However, Matthew Harrison, director of education programmes at the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: "The numbers provide me with little comfort. There is evidence of growth in the numbers of young people being attracted to engineering degree courses, but this growth is very small at a time when the challenges facing society grow almost daily.

"In the last five years covered by the report we've seen the emergence of a public fear of climate change, energy prices, food prices, protection of personal information.

"Each one (is) a huge issue needing cost-effective solutions that will require legions of creative engineers. Where will they come from?"

Professor Harrison said the introduction of the engineering diploma to schools in September would help address the issue. "If we emulate some of the success found in school maths, we should see strong growth in engineering undergraduate numbers," he said.

"We've got to inspire (children) through our teaching of the subject in school so that they see engineering as the vital, exciting career that it is," he said. "Get that wrong and we disconnect the most promising pipeline for the supply of engineering undergraduates that this nation has ever seen."

Fiona Martland, executive secretary of the Engineering Professors' Council, said she was "reasonably optimistic" about engineering applications, but added "we do need to see them translated into bums on seats".

"I think when you look at the size of the pool from which we can actually recruit we are not doing so badly," she said.

Give STEM high-fliers £1,000 reward, says CBI

Graduates of science, technology, engineering and mathematics should be given a £1,000 bursary to encourage young people into related careers and to reflect the value of these skills to the economy, the Confederation of Business and Industry (CBI) has said.

The CBI also said that high achievers in school science should be enrolled automatically to study for a triple science GCSE award. Most pupils currently sit the double award examination.

Richard Lambert, director of the CBI, said: "We need to create an environment in schools that reflects the importance of science, and the value of studying it. We also need to send an unambiguous message to young people who are good at science that science as a career can be fascinating and worthwhile, and will reward you well."

Roger Ainsworth, master of St Catherine's College, Oxford, said: "Triple science GCSE will give a better preparation for science A levels, and therefore a better preparation for science degrees."

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