The Government’s favoured direction for UK industry – developing into the ‘knowledge economy’ – could be under threat within ten years due to a serious shortage of high quality graduate engineers, The Royal Academy of Engineering will warn in a new report today (21 June). The Academy surveyed over 400 companies and 88 UK university engineering departments in preparing Educating Engineers for the 21st Century. Both groups gave a strong and consistent message that industry will need more graduate engineers and that university engineering courses need redesigning for the modern economy To achieve the type of engineering education tomorrow’s engineers need, funding per university engineering student needs to increase by at least 50 per cent.

International developments make the situation serious – mature economies like the UK must now compete with those of rapidly developing countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China. On current projections the combined GDPs of these nations will overtake those of the US, UK, Germany, Japan, France and Italy by 2040. The developing nations are producing record numbers of graduate engineers to fuel their technological and economic development – China and India produce over half a million engineers every year.

“The UK’s output of engineers is stagnating,” says the Chair of the working group that produced the report, Professor Julia King CBE FREng, Vice Chancellor of Aston University. “Between 1994 and 2004 the entries to university engineering courses remained stubbornly static at about 24,500 even though total university admissions went up by 40 per cent in the same period.”

“In fact we face a double challenge now,” says Professor King. “Not only do we need many more engineers we need a new type of education for them – much of the current teaching would still be familiar to engineers of my generation. The traditional boundaries of the various engineering disciplines inherited from the 19th Century are being blurred by new industries like medical engineering and nanotechnology. If we don’t address this problem the UK could slide into insignificance as an internationally competitive nation.”

The Academy found that the best UK engineering graduates are still world class but there are not enough of them and industry is already reporting skills shortages. Industry wants graduates with more experience of problem solving, group ‘design and make’ projects, and applying theory to real industrial problems. Students need opportunities to work in genuine industrial environments through work placements and projects and university staff need to be able to develop new teaching material with input from companies, learning from the success of academic-industrial research links.

“Fixing the deficiencies in our engineering courses will not come cheaply,” says Professor King. “Current funding for engineering students at UK universities is £8,000 per annum – the universities estimate that they need £11,000-12,000 to teach engineering in ways which will retain and develop the UK’s historic reputation for excellence in this area.”

“Research quality has benefited from the Government’s strong focus on research performance and increased funding,” she says. “Now we need to turn that focus onto teaching so that we can deliver the creative, problem-solving engineers that industry is crying out for.”

Notes for editors

  1. 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.
  2. Educating Engineers for the 21st Century was prepared by an Academy working group drawn from both academia and industry:

    Professor Julia King CBE FREng (Chair) Vice Chancellor, Aston University
    Professor Graham Davies FREng Head of School of Engineering, University of Birmingham
    Professor Peter Goodhew FREng Engineering Department, Liverpool University
    Professor Geoff Kirk FREng formerly Chief Design Engineer (Civil Aerospace), Rolls-Royce plc
    Professor David Nethercot OBE FREng Head of Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Imperial College London
    Hugh Norie OBE FREng Project Director, DFT Channel Tunnel Rail Link
    Professor John Roulston OBE FREng FRS CEO, Scimus Solutions
    Dr Michael Shears CBE FREng Chairman, Arup Trustees
    Dr Julia Shelton Reader in Medical Engineering, Queen Mary, University of London
    Professor Michael Withers FREng RAEng Visiting Professor in Principles of Engineering Design, Loughborough University

    Download the Education Engineers report (135.50 KB)

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton or Tonia Page at The Royal Academy of Engineering