Engineers struggle

September 5, 2003

Concentrating funding on the elite has roused despair and defiance. The THES reports.

Engineering research in the UK is on the brink of collapse, government ministers will be told next week.

The subject is under intense pressure in universities, with students spurning the subject, ageing academics set to retire and departments facing funding cuts.

This will impact on the number of well-trained engineers who will tackle future crises in, for example, electricity supply and transport networks, as well as new technologies for industry.

The Royal Academy of Engineering's assessment will be published tomorrow.

Copies are being sent to government departments.

"The gravity of the situation must be recognised before it does irrevocable damage to our economy," said Philip Ruffles, vice-president of the academy and author of the report The Future of Engineering Research.

Mr Ruffles, former director of engineering and technology at Rolls-Royce, said his year-long probe had shown the flow of new skilled personnel had slowed to a trickle.

The popularity of the subject has collapsed. In 1991, more than one in ten university applicants chose engineering. In 2001, that figure had halved.

Mr Ruffles said it was vital for the quality of mathematics and physical science teaching in schools to be improved to give more students the opportunity to pursue engineering.

The dismantling of corporate laboratories and the privatisation of public institutes has pushed the onus for research onto academe. Yet 46 university engineering and technology departments have closed since 1996 and a fresh round of closures may follow the 2001 research assessment exercise, which has left 60 per cent facing dwindling funding.

Mr Ruffles warned that "increasing numbers of academic staff face retirement by 2010". He found many engineering departments struggling to retain staff. Recruitment rates need to rise by 22 to 36 per cent to maintain current levels.

"We have experienced failings in our transport systems in recent years, but what will happen when the electricity or water supply industries suffer from a lack of knowledgeable engineers? What future is there for technological advancement?" he asked.

The report recommends increased remuneration for PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and lecturers, and expanded efforts to promote the recruitment and retention of women in engineering.

It also calls for business and communication skills to be incorporated into engineering degrees and links between industry and academe to be strengthened.

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