Student apathy could threaten engineering’s graduate base

The decline in young people taking engineering degrees has put academic jobs at risk, raising fears of an erosion of the engineering base within the UK’s higher education system.

Luton University recently became the latest institution to announce job cuts among its academic staff, following an 11% drop in the number of students joining its engineering and technology courses.

Almost 100 academic staff are to be made redundant, including engineering and technology lecturers.

The university’s vice chancellor, Dr Dai John, said the action, part of a £4m spending cut, was in response to the shift in demand among students at newer universities towards subjects such as media studies and design. More traditional subjects, including engineering, have more places available than students wanting to take them up, he said.

Experienced engineering academics are a rare breed, and job losses inevitably raise fears that those affected will leave the sector altogether. ‘It’s a terrible waste of scarce talent in the higher education sector,’ says Andrew Ramsey, director of engineers’ regulation at the Engineering Council.

‘Faculties are having difficulties recruiting qualified and experienced lecturers and we hope these people will find academic posts elsewhere.’

Government must lead

Matthew Fletcher, head of technology at Luton University, says government action may be needed to prevent engineering disappearing from UK universities. ‘This is an area of concern,’ he says. ‘To have a balanced society, we need to have experts in all fields.’

He adds that Luton University has been affected by a decline in applications for engineering courses. ‘There is a general lack of student interest. Students don’t wish to go into engineering — the numbers have reduced.’

Luton is not the only former polytechnic to have struggled to fill vacancies on its engineering courses. Lincolnshire and Humberside University recently announced plans to close one of its campuses after a drop in demand for places.

A spokesman for the university said the courses taught at the site, including engineering, would be moved to another campus, but would be ‘reconfigured’ to avoid competing directly with nearby Hull University.

Engineering would retain a presence at the university, the spokesman added, but it was not yet certain what form that presence would take.

These announcements follow last year’s decision by Hertfordshire University to make 79 staff redundant, affecting academic posts in civil engineering and chemical sciences, and the closure of Middlesex University’s engineering school last July.

The latest figures available from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show the number of young people starting engineering degrees declined for the third year running last September.

At the same time, there has been an overall rise in the number of students entering higher education.

The decline in take-up of engineering courses has hit the former polytechnics (now universities) particularly hard. And it is a trend that flies in the face of industry’s future needs, according to David Howard, chairman of the Engineering Professors Council. The demand for incorporated engineers is expected to rise rapidly over the next few years, he says.

‘The pool of young people for engineering departments to recruit from is getting smaller each year, although industry is looking for more and more engineers.’

Changing entry standards

Under the Engineering Council’s SARTOR regulations, tougher A-level entry standards were set for degree courses leading to chartered engineer status. At the same time, courses with lower entry requirements, primarily in new universities, were forced to convert to a less theory-based syllabus leading to incorporated engineer status.

However, despite the expected rise in demand for incorporated engineers, many universities offering these courses have failed to attract students.

‘It is a sad day for higher education and the engineering profession,’ says Howard. ‘We have got the higher education places available and even if we filled them all we wouldn’t have enough engineers to meet the demand from industry — but we can’t even fill the places we have.’

The problem looks unlikely to go away. And paradoxically, despite the job cuts among engineering lecturers, universities still face an overall shortage of new teachers. The Engineering Council is so concerned at the scarcity of engineering lecturers that it has written to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) urging it to reward universities that make it easier for engineering and technology lecturers to undertake industrial research.

The HEFCE plans to allocate an extra £370m over three years to help improve staff recruitment, retention and development at universities.

This new funding is a result of the 1999 Bett enquiry, which identified engineering as a sector facing accute staffing problems.

Universities are stuck in a structure that forces them to pay academics in the same way whatever their subject, making it difficult to recruit engineers, says Ramsey. ‘We have suggested that the HEFCE should look at more flexible ways of employing people in engineering, such as new kinds of contracts to allow them to work in both academia and industry,’ he adds.