Research Intelligence - Engineering a solution to turbulence

Now is the time to improve and expand facilities, Sheffield faculty head tells Paul Jump

August 18, 2011

Credit: Philippe Gontier/Science Photo Library
Ready for lift-off: Sheffield plans to expand its engineering department with new facilities and additional staff, building on its longstanding strengths in the discipline

Universities must not allow plans for expansion to be sidetracked by the "turbulence" of the government's higher education reforms.

This is the view of Mike Hounslow, pro vice-chancellor for the University of Sheffield's Faculty of Engineering.

Sheffield recently announced a £21 million investment in the first phase of a major overhaul and expansion of its engineering provision.

Most of the initial investment will be ploughed into a new state-of-the-art graduate school which, subject to planning permission, should be finished by August 2013.

The university also plans to add 21 academics to its current roster of 200. Six of the new crop will be "world-leading" professors, Professor Hounslow said.

Engineering has long been one of Sheffield's strengths. The university was second in the UK for mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering, according to Times Higher Education's analysis of the 2008 research assessment exercise results. It also rode high in the other engineering disciplines.

The faculty came into being in the same year and Professor Hounslow decided that, if it was to fulfil its ambition to be "one of the best engineering faculties in the UK and, therefore, the world", it needed to expand significantly.

A subsequent 40 per cent growth has been achieved through increased recruitment of postgraduates and overseas undergraduates, and a significant expansion in research activity - especially in collaboration with industry in the faculty's "hugely successful" Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.

The new graduate school is the next step in the expansion, and a "pipeline" of further projects is planned, including the construction of new and expanded teaching facilities that will "display to the city and the world what (modern) engineering undergraduate education looks like".

The university will seek philanthropic donations but most of the funding will come from its own coffers. And, with other institutions such as the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London also investing significantly in engineering, Professor Hounslow believes there is a wider story to be told about the progress that engineering departments have made over the past 15 years.

Changing attitudes

"From 1995 to 2005 engineering was in a really difficult place," he admitted.

"To put it polemically, you could go to a good university and get a good job and have a prosperous life without studying something as demanding as engineering - so why would you? We were seeing declining interest, costs were rising and engineering did not seem to be an obvious investment for universities."

He said that the tide began to turn in the early 2000s following Sir Gareth Roberts' SET for Success report on improving the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) skills.

"Since then we have seen consistent messages from government and employers that engineering matters, and that has been transmitted to university leaders," he said.

Professor Hounslow said he believed that the coming tuition fees rise could benefit engineering recruitment by making students "more inquisitive about what they get when they go to university".

"When they look, they will see that, in general, the big engineering providers tick the boxes of stu- dent satisfaction and employment prospects and of having in the degree title a label that will persuade people there is a purpose to it," he said.

He said that all engineering faculties "take teaching seriously", partly because engineering degrees had to seek external accreditation that was "not given lightly".

"This is something we should be more vocal about," he said. "You wouldn't have so many overseas students coming to study engineering in this country if it weren't for the fact that we provide outstanding education."

But the picture is not entirely rosy. Professor Hounslow said he hoped that the Higher Education Funding Council for England's consultation on funding mechanisms would conclude that direct funding for expensive courses such as engineering should be continued. But he admitted that he was scratching his head over other potential unintended consequences of the higher education White Paper.

Universities tempted to chase extra places by charging tuition fees of less than £7,500 a year were "unlikely to be contemplating offering engineering or science degrees", he noted.

He also shared the commonly voiced concern that the extra places being offered for students obtaining A-level grades of AAB or better could work against engineering, which typically attracts fewer AAB students than some non-STEM subjects. He called for the government to avoid applying the same grade threshold for extra places across all subjects.

Unintended consequences

Helen Atkinson, the newly elected president of the Engineering Professors' Council and head of the mechanics of materials at the University of Leicester, echoed Professor Hounslow's buoyant assessment of the state of UK engineering.

She said the impression that engineering jobs were in decline - which had been created by the widespread closures in the manufacturing industry during the 1980s - had finally faded from public consciousness.

But she also worried that the higher education reforms could take an unintended toll on engineering. One major fear was that undergraduates paying high tuition fees could be put off from studying the "gold standard" MEng because of its four-year duration.

Meanwhile, the alternative route to becoming a chartered engineer - a BEng followed by an MSc - would potentially be even harder to finance, given that the student loans scheme is not available for the postgraduate year.

Professor Atkinson also worried that the recruitment of engineering graduates, 30 per cent of whom come from overseas, could be hit by the impression given by recent wrangling over student visa reforms, that the UK did not welcome international students.

The fact that one-third of overseas entrants came from UK-based sub-degree programmes, whose numbers the new visa regime is designed to cut, was a particular cause for concern.

"Engineering has no problem with cracking down on illegitimate provision, but there could be unintended consequences for legitimate courses," she said.

But Professor Hounslow insisted that the positive reasons for universities to invest in engineering still outweighed the negatives, and he warned against adopting an all-consuming focus on what was happening to government funding.

"For many universities the turbulence will be mighty and it may yet be in Sheffield," he said. "But if that is the only thing you are focusing on then the next five years will be a period of failure to progress, and the country can't afford that."

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.