RAE focus reduces calibre of students

June 29, 2007

Royal Academy of Engineers says courses are outdated, underfunded and unattractive, Rebecca Attwood writes

The focus on research rankings has left undergraduate engineering courses 20 years out of date and is taking the excitement and innovation out of teaching, according to Britain's national academy for the profession.

With stalling numbers of engineering graduates and only half of graduates choosing to enter the profession, the UK could "slide into insignificance" as a competitive industrial nation, warns a new report from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

University courses are "seriously underfunded", says the document, titled Educating Engineers for the 21st Century . There is also growing concern that they are failing to keep pace with the changing nature of the industry - Jcourse structure and content have changed relatively little over the past 20 years, the report points out.

It calls on the Government to increase university funding for courses from £6,500 per student to up to at least £9,500, to give greater weight to teaching quality alongside research excellence and to allow overseas students to work in the UK for five years after graduation.

Meanwhile, universities must reward excellent and innovative course design through promotion criteria and strengthen their links with industry.

Julia King, the vice-chancellor of Aston University and chair of the Educating Engineers for the 21st Century Working Party, said: "We have seen the fantastic effects of the research assessment exercise on quality and quantity of research, but there is such a strong focus on research in many departments that young staff say that teaching comes low on their list of priorities because they are not promoted or rewarded for it. We need excellent teaching to feature much more strongly in university rankings, to be something that is adequately funded, and to make sure that is reflected in university promotion criteria."

The strong message from industry is that companies are already starting to see a shortage of the right calibre of engineer, she said.

Peter Guthrie, professor of engineering for sustainable development at Cambridge University, said the general level of adventure and excitement in teaching was less than it should be.

He said: "The pressures on academics to perform against the criteria of the RAE inevitably led to a lack of attention and focus on new ways of teaching and learning. What is impressive is how many academics devote significant effort and time to teaching despite the rules of engagement."

Professor Guthrie said there were two reasons why fewer graduates were choosing to enter the profession. "The courses somehow fail to impart the excitement and fulfilment that a career in engineering can offer, and engineering careers look less attractive to graduating students than highly paid and intellectually demanding careers in finance and management," he said.

While the content of courses needs to reflect the needs of industry, he advocated a more proactive attempt to seek out what engineering students want, too.

John Oakley, senior lecturer in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Manchester University, said it had become hard for engineering lecturers to convey their fascination for research problems to undergraduates because of the large body of routine material that industry expected to be taught at undergraduate level. He said: "Many students become swamped with the sheer volume of mundane learning that is expected and never get to appreciate the simplicity, elegance and beauty of good engineering."

Dr Oakley said there was now "a big gap" between the engineering curriculum and the research issues addressed by university departments.

rebecca.attwood@thes.co.uk

NUMBER CRUNCH

* Between 1994 and 2004, the number of students embarking on engineering degrees in UK universities remained static at 24,500 a year, while total university admissions rose by 40 per cent

* After completing their studies, less than half of UK engineering graduates choose to enter the profession

* Engineering courses used to be funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England at twice the basic unit of resource, but over the period 2003-04 this ratio was reduced to 1.7

WOMEN OPT FOR THE MEDICAL SIDE

Men make up 85 per cent of engineering and technology students, but a course at Queen Mary, University of London, is bucking the trend. Half the students on its four-year medical engineering MEng programme are women.

Julia Shelton, reader in medical engineering at Queen Mary, said: "We are attracting a very different cohort of students. Engineering is not just about making cars go faster, it can also be about helping people."

She said the course was attracting academically talented students who were interested in healthcare but did not want to choose the medicine route.

"Medical engineering is about applying the engineering principle to the human body. I challenge students who say they want to study medicine. If you develop a technology to help diagnose or treat patients, then you are going to have more impact than treating individual patients."

The course, which attracts 50 students a year, has good links with industry. Students work to solve real-life industrial problems and also gain insight into the medical aspects of the profession from medical staff.

Recent projects include building a prototype ankle joint replacement, developing a system to measure the quality of cartilage in a joint, and designing a mattress for the prevention of pressure ulcers.

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