Universities should concentrate engineering provision in a few centres of excellence, industry chiefs said this week after new figures showed graduate numbers down by a fifth.
The Engineering Employers Federation called for centres of excellence as part of action required to reverse a 21 per cent fall in the numbers of engineering and technology graduates over the past five years.
The figures, revealed by the Liberal Democrats, show that the number of engineering and technology graduates fell from 18,438 in 1995-96 to 14,569 in 1999-00. The Liberal Democrat figures came from ministerial answers to parliamentary questions.
Added to this, the latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show a 5 per cent drop in mechanical engineering applications, a 6 per cent drop in applications to civil engineering and a 5 per cent fall in engineering and technology combinations compared with the same time last year.
Against this, applications to computer systems engineering courses were up by nearly 54 per cent and science with engineering and technology applications were up by just over 24 per cent.
Ann Bailey, head of education and training affairs for the federation, said that many universities had already reduced or closed their engineering departments in the face of an ongoing fall in student numbers.
She said: "It is very important that we have quality engineering departments with the ability to teach well and enthuse and excite people. That might mean centres of excellence. We may have to consider restructuring what we mean by engineering."
Ms Bailey said that engineering suffered from an image problem. First it is seen as a difficult subject compared with other university disciplines. Second, engineering is seen as a poor area to go into because it is seen as unstable and always shedding jobs.
Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman David Rendel said: "We face a serious problem in maintaining the UK's global competitiveness in engineering and technology. We need urgent action to overcome recruitment problems in feeder subjects such as maths and design technology in schools."
Barry Plumb, deputy vice-chancellor at Manchester Metropolitan University and former chairman of the Engineering Professors Council, said: "We have attempted to develop engineering as an exciting, creative opportunity but the perception in schools is that science-based subjects are boring and not as well taught or supported as other subjects.
"The trouble is that by the time pupils are 15 or 16, their impressions of engineering are formed. It could be ten years before we see any change."