The lack of growth in the UK economy and rising competition from around the world is a cause for concern and credit rating agencies have put the UK on negative watch in recent weeks. Any rational plan for growth will require an improved balance of trade and with more than 50% of exports coming from engineering enterprises such as manufacturing and IT, engineers will be the key actors in the recovery.

The scale of the economic challenge added to the social challenges of decarbonising, water shortages, energy futures and making complex IT work mean that we need to attract many more of the brightest minds into engineering. The crisis in recruiting engineers the UK faces is made worse by our international competitors accelerating their engineering capabilities.

However, we should not waste the opportunities created by a crisis. Now is the time to create cutting-edge, attractive undergraduate engineering courses that will inspire and motivate a next generation of excellent engineers according to a report published today by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The joint Academy/Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) international report, Achieving excellence in engineering education: the ingredients of successful change, goes beyond previous engineering education studies and identifies catalysts for change and crucially how change occurs, informed by successful international case studies. It looks at common features of successful new courses and who drives the change, as well as providing a set of guidelines for curriculum reform.

The pressing issue for engineering education is not whether but how to change. After drawing on the experiences of those involved in major successful programmes of engineering education reform across the world, the report found that widespread lasting change is rarely the product of piecemeal reform, but the result of environmental changes, or a crisis.

Most cases of successful change are triggered by a significant threat to the existing undergraduate programme, typically related to major problems in recruitment, retention and employability or a threat to the long-term survival of a university programme or department.

Ensuring that engineering undergraduates receive the best possible education is of crucial importance to the UK government’s aim of rebalancing the economy.

“Universities must ensure that their courses prepare students for industry and give them the skills that employers in the 21st century desire, especially in the current tough economic climate,” says Phillip Greenish, Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering,

Dr Ruth Graham, author of the report says: “Almost without exception, successful and sustainable change starts with a fundamental assessment of curriculum–wide goals and involves a re-alignment of the entire curriculum in which a cross-section of faculty is involved. Widespread lasting change is rarely the product of incremental reform and ‘lone champions’ seldom achieve long-term and dramatic change.”

However, the most successful programmes will probably involve faculty with industry experience, who are newly-hired or who have experienced failure in previous attempts to make isolated changes at course level.

Change must be radical and widespread for it to stick; it is also ambitious and aims high to create a premier ‘brand’ for a university and be leaders in the field. Courses that maintained successful changes saw an improvement in student intake quality and motivation, as well as an on-going process of reinvention.

To sustain change performance should be measured to maintain positive reforms, while funding should be allocated to whole departments, rather than individuals or groups to ensure change continues to be rooted in the whole curriculum and therefore make a bigger impact.

Notes for editors

  1. Download the Academy’s report Achieving excellence in engineering education: the ingredients of successful change
  2. The report was drafted by Dr Ruth Graham, independent education researcher, supported by Fellows of the Academy and based on inputs from more than 150 engineering academics from around the world.
  3. The report was jointly funded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and The Royal Academy of Engineering.
  4. 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.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636; email: Jane Sutton