Engineering malaise

November 20, 1998

Engineering departments are finding it ever harder to recruit good staff. A recent Association of University Teachers meeting at the House of Commons was told that, in the past ten years, only eight of the recruits to teach chemical engineering in the UK have held British degrees in chemical engineering. This must be less than 10 per cent of the staff recruited. Low pay is no doubt the major reason for this trend but job insecurity and high workloads must play their part.

Thus few of the applicants for any lectureship will offer a substantial research record and also a good command of spoken English, a degree in the relevant discipline and industrial experience. Not long ago the last three qualifications would have been regarded as almost essential and the first as merely desirable.

But today the priorities are inverted. A scientist with numerous publications is almost certain to be preferred to an experienced engineer with few publications. In the research assessment exercise-obsessed culture of higher education, the unhealthy result is that most of the recent appointees in some engineering departments have been scientists.

How long will it be before the scientists outnumber the engineers? How long can this continue without fatally weakening engineering courses? How soon will the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service candidates start demanding summary CVs of all staff from each department? When they do, will departments with an unconvincing staff-mix be able to improve it quickly enough to maintain their student numbers? How?

The Bett committee might offer some long-term help on pay, which might increase the number of engineers who apply. But this will achieve nothing while recruitment policy is driven by the RAE. Only the accrediting institutions have the power to resist this malign force. They express polite concern now; how much longer will it be before they start to deliver what industry and the engineering professions need, by getting tough with the universities?

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