Degrees of difficulty

As engineering departments labour under the burden of an image problem and struggle to attract high-calibre students, will the recently launched Learning and Teaching Support Network succeed in drawing them back? HELEN BEASLEY assesses its chances

Engineering academics have had a difficult time of late. Industry experts have long accepted that engineering has an image problem, and while prestigious institutions such as Imperial College are maintaining their intake levels, competition for high-calibre students is fierce. Many universities are struggling to fill their courses.

New courses such as Communications Technology, Media Technology and Music Technology are successfully attracting students who shy away from courses with traditional engineering names. As a result, academics are having to react with unaccustomed speed to keep up with the rate of change in student tastes.

Meanwhile, alterations to the structure of engineering qualifications, such as the three-year degree leading to Incorporated Engineer status, and plans for two-year foundation degrees, have helped to sow confusion.

The Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) for Engineering, based at Loughborough University, is hoping to offer beleaguered university staff some assistance in tackling these issues, by encouraging the sharing of innovative ideas and good practice in higher education teaching.

Identifying the issues

The LTSN, launched in January this year, is a national network made up of 24 dedicated centres dealing with different subjects. The network was established by the UK’s four higher education funding councils, which have committed £30m over five years to the centres.

The Loughborough engineering centre, which was launched last month, will receive £240,000 a year in funding over an initial five-year period. John Dickens, the centre’s director, wants it to become a national point of contact for all engineering academics, providing a focus for discussion within the sector, and improving the credibility and relevance of engineering teaching.

According to Dickens, the engineering LTSN has one of the largest remits of the 24 centres. There are currently approximately 125,000 engineering students and 10,000 academic staff in more than 100 institutions and 600 departments in the UK.

Dickens says that the centre will aim to meet the needs of the engineering community, he is planning an extensive consultation exercise to find out exactly what those needs are. Two issues already identified are the need to provide courses more closely linked to industry, and the pressure universities are facing in recruiting students.

But are these problems for which a best practice initiative can provide solutions? John Chubb, director of administration at the school of industrial and manufacturing science at Cranfield University, thinks not. He doubts the centre will be able to tackle problems of that scale, unless there is a change in the government’s approach to university education. `It’s a sociological problem, and this initiative won’t help that. In Europe the profession is seen as an elite, and that attracts people. But the UK government has recently been going into print against elitism,’ he says.

Learning from the past

The centre will also have to overcome scepticism among engineering academics if it is to make an impact. Dr Ewart Keep, deputy director of Skope, a research unit which focuses on skills, knowledge and organisational performance, based at Warwick University, argues that new initiatives are set up every week which achieve little, but swamp over-burdened university staff.

`There are so many initiatives, and one wonders about their impact. The biggest problem is recruiting high-calibre students, and sharing best practice may help to improve teaching and research, but it won’t help to recruit high quality undergraduates,’ he says.

Dickens accepts that the number of initiatives has been a problem in the past and says that one of the objectives of the centre is to tackle that criticism. `There have been all sorts of projects over the past 10 years, where funding has been given and then comes to an end, and the team disintegrates. We would remain as a single national point of reference, so expertise developed is not lost,’ he says.

The centre is designed to be both a physical and, through its website, virtual meeting place for academic staff, students, industry figures and professional bodies. Dickens hopes this will help them to develop as many contacts as possible with academics throughout the UK, to exchange ideas and contribute to the development of learning and teaching approaches.

Dr Kate Exley, staff development officer at Nottingham University and a member of the LTSN steering group, says the proof will be whether it can reach beyond the academic enthusiasts, and those interested in innovation.

`There is huge enthusiasm that this is the right thing to do, but the problem is that engineers enjoy problem solving, and the challenge will be getting them to accept that someone else has already solved a problem somewhere else, and disseminating those ideas throughout higher education,’ she concludes.