View from the Academy: Meeting 21st century education challenges

Hayaatun Sillem

There has been a longstanding imbalance in the focus on research reputation and income at the expense of teaching across the engineering sector, says Hayaatan Sillem

Over the summer, the academy sent an 80-strong delegation to Washington, DC for the Global Grand Challenges Summit, a major gathering of distinguished and early-career engineers from the UK, US and China, focused on accelerating action by engineers on global challenges.

While the UK delegation included such luminaries as nanotechnology pioneer Lord Alec Broers, UK chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies and tech entrepreneur Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, the group was primarily made up of UK engineering undergraduates who had been selected for their innovative ideas to tackle global development challenges. The summit’s student activities were led by Dr Jason Blackstock, co-founder of the UCL engineering department’s How to Change the World programme, which aims to equip students with the skills to develop creative and technically robust solutions to 21st century challenges. In addition to providing an engaging student experience, the programme helps to instil in talented young engineers a global outlook and awareness of the role that engineers can play in delivering social and environmental change.

Credit: Rolls-Royce

The UK is a leading nation in engineering education. UK engineers practice globally and our institutions educate engineers from all over the world. Powerful influences, including demographic change, globalisation and rapidly evolving technologies are driving profound changes in the role of engineering in society. It is essential that our engineering education system responds to these influences. Today’s graduates can expect to work for longer than the current workforce, and the pace of technology development is posing many challenging questions about how the future of work and patterns of jobs will change over their working lives. Our universities are therefore being asked to train students for tasks and jobs that may not yet exist.

However, there are some discernible trends that universities are starting to respond to. For example, today’s graduates need strong foundations in digital and data-handling skills. They need to develop attributes such as an interdisciplinary mindset and the flexibility to capitalise on emerging breakthroughs in technology. They also need the capacity to apply their knowledge wisely and responsibly – to evaluate, judge and create new ideas. All possible engineering solutions are not necessarily ethically or socially appropriate, and engineers should be able to understand the difference.

Industrial engagement has long been identified as a critical factor for effective engineering education – and is an area where improvement is still needed. The Institution of Engineering and Technology found that 62 per cent of the 400 employers they surveyed in 2016 believed engineering graduates don’t have the right skills for today’s workplace. Schemes such as the academy’s Visiting Professors programme bring practising engineers into universities to
ensure that students are exposed to real-world examples and insights from industry, which helps to both bring the subject to life for students and ultimately improve the employability and work-readiness of graduates.

We recognise that we are calling for yet more change when the higher education sector is under greater pressure than ever before. There is an increasing focus on value for money because of tuition fees, while the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework, the process of leaving the EU and its potential impact on recruitment of future staff and students, apprenticeships and other forms of provision are all contributing to the challenge.

Nevertheless, there has been a longstanding imbalance in the focus on research reputation and income at the expense of teaching across the sector. That is why the academy has welcomed the principle of the Teaching Excellence Framework. The controversy surrounding the publication of the government’s 2017 TEF results in June highlights the importance of making sure that the  approach adopted is seen as credible and effective by the higher education sector and students, and that it supports new approaches to teaching – driving improvement rather than stifling innovation.

Over the past 18 months, the Academy has been addressing this issue. We have developed a new teaching evaluation framework for measuring university teaching. We are currently piloting the framework across a global consortium of 16 leading universities in 12 countries. Progress looks very positive, with the Dutch government already seeking to adopt the framework across all universities in the Netherlands.

We hope that many UK universities will adopt the new framework, which will help to make excellence in teaching as visible as that in research, as well as driving the innovation in teaching and learning that is so desperately needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Dr Hayaatun Sillem is deputy chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering