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Young engineers 'taught more than just passing exams' say universities

Academics have hit back at the idea that engineering graduates are only being trained to pass exams. 


A new report that highlights the difficulties faced by manufacturers in recruiting skilled workers, quotes one business leader as saying: ‘Engineering graduates have been taught to pass exams. Academia is letting the country down and we have to teach our recruits the ways of the world before teaching them about the business.’

But the Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC), which represents UK university engineering departments, said it was puzzled by the quote and was concerned it had let to the report being mispresented.

‘The facts simply don’t bear out the assertion,’ said a spokesperson for the EPC in a statement sent to The Engineer . ‘An engineering graduate is around 20% more likely to have found a full time job within 6 months of graduation than graduates of other disciplines, on average.

‘It is well recognised that the UK HE system, and engineering in particular, is one of the best in the world, as testified by the large numbers of international students who choose to study here.’

The EPC added: ‘The vast majority of our courses receive professional accreditation, and hence the required degree outcomes and what a graduate is expected to know and be able to do is largely defined by the engineering profession, which includes industry.’

The report, An insight into modern manufacturing , said recurring concern over the quality and quantity of skilled technicians and graduates and the output of the UK education system was the most important message to send to government and academia.

It also quoted one manufacturer who said: ‘There are a lot of misconceptions about manufacturing among young people: that it is badly paid, has high redundancy rates and is dirty, physically demanding work.’

The EPC said virtually all university engineering departments had industrial advisory panels to provide guidance on curriculum content.

‘Far from letting down our industrial partners, university engineering departments have recognised some of the issues arising from changes in the pre-university education system and have been working hard to find ways to address them.

‘If it is felt that the situation is not improving, we throw down the gauntlet to our industrial colleagues to help us further in our mission.’

The report was produced by a group of the major engineering institutions under the name “Engineering the Future” based on interviews with 22 UK-based manufacturers.


Readers' comments (11)

  • A rather defensive and political reply which avoids the point made, in no way analytical, searching or considered in any logical way like an engineering master.

    There is a supply of many good engineers, but there is still a practical 'here-comes-real-life gap' that remains unbridged.

    The point whilst defended remains unaddressed.

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  • While I agree with the general jist of the article this quote raised a smile:

    The EPC added: ‘The vast majority of our courses receive professional accreditation, and hence the required degree outcomes and what a graduate is expected to know and be able to do is largely defined by the engineering profession, which includes industry.’

    Take a close, hard look at the institutions.... Has anyone noticed the significant percentage of academics within?

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  • One group of civil servants -ie those paid by the State (in whatever format and totally devoid of any commercial pressures) telling another how clever and how well they cover for each other.

    If any one wants to recognise the reality (as opposed to the hype) of University Departments and those bodies which give them money or apparently 'regulate' their activities, try the Thursday evening discipline -that commercial firms and their management9s) have to adhere to.
    "It there is not enough money in the bank to pay the salaries on friday.. you, the firm, the staff, the directors, and so on are St***ed": bankruptcy is only a telephone call away. It does concentrate the mind wonderfully.

    I know, because I have been there.

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  • A lot of academics are from industry so it would be hard to differentiate from that just based on their current employment.

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  • Over the years, I have interviewed many leading engineers. (Read, FREngs.)) The "taught to pass exams" refrain is a regular feature. Here is a link to the latest perpetrator of this "myth":

    =====start quote=====

    He feels universities should forget about producing perfectly-formed graduate engineers who can hit the ground running with a particular expertise, in finite element analysis, for example. "Students learn to become an engineer in the work undertaken in the years after they leave university." It doesn’t help that the education system’s focus is about passing exams, says Cooper. His experience with new graduates when they start work in engineering is that, too often, their approach is, ‘Ask me an exam question and I will answer it’. "Design engineering is about creating the question and answering it. It is about having the vision to know what the right question is to ask, and then to answer it with full marks."

    =====end quote=====

    The fact that the academics dismiss this notion suggests that they may not be talking to the right people.

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  • I used to characterize my formal engineering education as "learning the solutions". Real life work turned out to be "learning the problems". If education outlined the problem better, the solution would be easier to grasp. I wasn't a good student. I was on my third take of calculus before I realized we were calculating the area under a curve. After that it was easy.

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  • It is all very well being able to drive a powerful computer but you still need the basic understanding to tell you when it might be producing spurious results. Last year I interviewed for an new engineer to join the department. As a way to get them talking I started of by asking
    1. Please tell me about moments and show me a basic equation of balance.
    2. Tell me about Ohm's law and how you might use it in a simple battery and load circuit.
    Almost to a man (unfortunately no women applied) this lead to an embarrassing silence followed by much prompting to elicit any sort of response. These were all degree level candidates with one having a 1st. class honours in mechanical engineering.

    We finally took someone on who only had an HND but he had done a full five year apprenticeship a major defence company.

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  • I have the same problem as Richard Rimington.

    I've devised a small, guided, real-world activity to use in interviews that represents the kind of work we do in my industry.

    Time and again electrical engineering graduates, on occasion some with 1st class degrees, have been able to write down the basic relationships for three phase power. When asked to estimate a rating for transformers they get terribly flustered and start trying to calculate the impedance of the upstream network, which makes no sense at all.

    I'm sorry to say it but the bulk of British graduates are woefully lacking context for their academic studies. As another said, they know solutions to problems but don't know how to identify the problems in the first place.

    They might be able to calculate short circuit currents (though that's not often certain) but most wouldn't have a clue as to why they're doing it.

    For your information, in my experience the Greeks tend to be excellent candidates on average. But hats off to the Brits, the very best are always from our shores, sadly they're in short, short supply.

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  • In Australia our universities are not equipping their students for the work place, they the students have expectations well beyond (pay wise) their capability, generally they are unskilled in building things. They do not generally have skills in developing a project outcome, in modern electronics a GOOD engineer needs CAD skills, be able to draft schematics drawings, PCB layouts, write code for embedded processors, I am in RF industry and RF is an almost forgotten industry.

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  • Maybe the business leaders think the academics are letting the country down by schooling our student engineers in academics.

    It sounds silly but is that the case?

    What do the business leaders want? Students being examined on their sales skills perhaps?
    Schooling engineers in sales, business development etc would make for an interesting change, as opposed to FEA and mountains of calculus.

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  • Whilst sales and business are very important, FEA and maths are probably more important. I don't think we should be softening down the degree by turning into a glorified management degree. Just do a post graduate in this area if you are desperate to learn it. A lot of engineers despise having any involvement with management.

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