The Royal Academy of Engineering welcomes the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report on Strategic Science Provision in English Universities, published today (7 April). The number of students entering engineering courses in the UK is static at about 17,000 a year so the numbers are falling as a proportion of the total going to university. If government wants to see more impact from British research and development it will need proportionately more engineers in the future, not fewer. Already industry is highlighting particular areas of engineering where they cannot recruit enough skilled people.
Even higher rated departments are not immune from closure where they cannot be cross-subsidised from other subjects. Reading University was recently forced to close its undergraduate degree programmes in mechanical engineering despite receiving grade 5 in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise. At least 46 university engineering and technology departments have closed since 1996 and many others are severely under-resourced. Funding formulae must ensure consistency in funding streams so that departments can plan for their own financial stability.
Part of the problem lies in schools. “Over the last ten years the number of students leaving independent schools with two or more science or mathematics A-levels has remained about the same,” says Professor Bob Boucher, a Fellow of the Academy. “But the numbers coming out of state schools with science qualifications have fallen dramatically so that the 15 per cent of students educated in the independent sector account for half of those qualified to study science and engineering at university.” The Academy is keen to widen participation in engineering and is exploring proposals like aptitude testing early in secondary school to identify and encourage those with real potential to take the appropriate A-levels. But, as Professor Boucher says, “We have seen improvements in research funding recently but on the teaching side many teaching laboratories are mahogany benches with out-of-date equipment. It’s not surprising that the kids are not turned on.”
One consequence of further concentrating research, the Academy told the Committee, is that a two-tier system could be created where the highest ranked departments carry out most of the research and the remainder focus on teaching. Cutting edge research is invariably the basis for cutting edge teaching so there are quality implications for those departments which find themselves suddenly without research funding. While concentration of funding has had some success, it has gone far enough and further concentration could damage our capacity to produce top-quality researchers.
“Unless university teaching facilities are upgraded we will not be able to attract our brightest students into engineering,” says Academy President Lord Broers, who emphasises the importance of high quality engineers in his Reith Lectures this month on BBC Radio 4. “Technologists are determining the future of the human race,” he says. “We must create a society that is technologically literate and at ease with technological advance. If we do not understand technology we will not be able to control it intelligently. Today’s innovation depends upon creative engineers working in teams across social, geographic and academic boundaries.”
Notes for editors
Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.
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For more information please contact: Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering