Middlesex University’s closure of its engineering department is a significant blow for students, tutors and support staff alike at the north London site, which has been teaching engineering for 25 years. But it also shows how intensely difficult it has become to create engineering courses designed to attract the talented hands-on engineers of the future.
Middlesex cannot be criticised for its efforts to entice students. It has spent tens of thousands of pounds on poster advertising on London Underground trains over the past year – clever, engaging adverts designed to make youngsters stop and consider a career in engineering. Yet despite that, and despite what one observer described as genuinely innovative courses, the required numbers have failed to materialise, and the department will close next July.
Obviously, advertising alone cannot rescue a product nobody wants. That, putting it harshly, is what the Middlesex experience seems to be saying. The question the profession needs to ask is how much of this situation is specific to Middlesex, and – more worryingly – how much it is part of a more general malaise.
In 1997 we predicted that tougher A-level requirements for engineering courses, brought in by the Engineering Council and the Universities, would lead to course closures, specifically those offering degrees leading to chartered engineer status. Figures from the Engineering Council, which oversees engineers’ education, show that there are too many chartered engineers (with a theoretical background) on the market, and not enough incorporated engineers (who have a more hands-on approach).
Courses for incorporated engineers, such as those at Middlesex, need to expand, not contract. If Middlesex’s difficulties prove to be more widespread, then there will be a real problem. Universities may be unwilling to switch into such courses if they believe there is no market for them. But without a new cadre of graduates at this level, the entire engineering skills base in the UK is under threat. It is a grim prospect.