We must build up skills, not burn our bridges

September 26, 2003

Hefce's plans to cut engineering funding endanger the UK's economic wellbeing, argues Sa'ad Medhat.

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith characterised the British people as a nation of shopkeepers governed by shopkeepers to explain our increasing influence in world affairs. Had he been writing in the 19th century, he may well have cited instead our engineering prowess, which helped propel the nation into the modern era.

Britain's great engineering heritage is reflected in higher education today. Nearly 250 departments in 90 universities offer some form of engineering degree. Yet 79 university science and engineering departments have closed in the past six years - a decline that has grave consequences.

Fewer engineers means less innovation, which means fewer new products and services that can create wealth.

And now the Higher Education Funding Council for England proposes to slash funding for undergraduate programmes in at least eight engineering disciplines. These cuts seem to have been devised through a cleaving of closely related subjects, which have been assigned to different pre-determined "price groups" that aim to reflect the relative cost of providing a programme.

Previously, all science and engineering subjects fell into the same price group. Under the new regime, that price group would split to give physics, chemistry, metallurgy and chemical, mineral and materials engineering a 15.7 per cent rise in their resource rate. This is to be welcomed - or it would be if, meanwhile, we were not about to see a cut in resources for general, electrical, electronic, computer, mechanical, aero and production engineering programmes by an average of 7.4 per cent.

Robbing a set of engineering Peters to pay a set of engineering Pauls appears to contradict Hefce's aspirations to assign academically cognate subjects to the same price groups to reduce "the likelihood of activity near the borders between disciplines being reassigned to higher-weighted cost-centres".

So information technology and systems sciences will face the same average change in resource rate as computer software engineering - a 5 per cent cut. Computer engineering will get even less than that. But would there not be some activity near those borders?

Hefce describes the group of subjects to which it wants to allocate 15.7 per cent more as "high-cost laboratory-based science, engineering and technology". The other group, due for a 7.4 per cent cut, is described as "other laboratory-based science, engineering and technology". Yet aero-engineering and electronic engineering degrees include expensive laboratory activity.

Other inconsistencies are common in the proposals. Civil engineering will attract 7.4 per cent less funding from 2004-05. Materials engineering will gain 15.7 per cent. So we can expect to see fewer civil engineering departments and more materials engineering departments. Which will mean more materials engineers but fewer civil engineers to use the materials they create.

For the science, engineering and technology community, the Hefce proposals raise more questions than they answer. Will engineering departments simply rename programmes to attract more funding? Will they try to attract more overseas students, who pay full fees, to lower funded programmes to make up for shortfalls, thereby squeezing out the UK's potential in this area? How many engineering departments will close?

Unfortunately, Hefce reflects the confusion over engineering that runs throughout education. For students, teachers and careers advisers, the options for studying engineering and pursuing it as a career are not always clear. There is great overlap between what is taught and practised in physics, chemistry, mathematics and the engineering subjects. So why separate them, as Hefce has done?

Engineering skills are some of the most transferable, and engineers can end up in a variety of key roles in the economy. They are widespread in the top management of FTSE 100 companies, prominent in the venture capital industry and successful as entrepreneurs, and they head nearly half of the UK's higher education institutions.

The choice we have is one of long-term prosperity or short-term cuts. The skills strategy white paper brought into focus the challenge of improving the UK's productivity and competitiveness. Central to this must be increasing access to diverse engineering and technology education. This will give engineers of the future the best chance of realising their potential and provide businesses with the talent they need - a nation of engineers helping to establish the high-skills, high-tech economy to rival the economies of our international competitors.

Sa'ad Medhat is director of education, policy and innovation at the Engineering and Technology Board smedhat@etechb.co.uk

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