Your numbers aren’t up

by Jerry Frank

Almost 600 Middlesex University engineering students trudged to college in North London last week to find that the Bounds Green-based department would close at the end of this academic year.

The decision, only a month into the academic year, marks the end of the university’s attempt to buck a year-on-year fall in the number of applicants to its school of engineering systems by using a high-profile advertising campaign on London’s tube network. The hoped-for surge in potential engineers never materialised. Student numbers fell again this year to 590 against a target of 744, compared to 660 taking up 720 available places in 1998/9.

The dean of the School of Engineering Systems, professor Anthony White, laid the blame for the closure firmly on engineering’s deteriorating image among young people.

`Engineering departments are no longer able to recruit students to courses in the numbers required. Engineering is perceived as being both difficult and unattractive. The pool of potential students is diminishing and the wide choice in higher education has resulted in fewer students choosing engineering,’ he said in a statement last Tuesday.

His analysis came as small consolation to the angry students who had enrolled for the year. A number of them berated vice-chancellor Bill Driscoll for three hours at a meeting held at the university on Tuesday afternoon.

Driscoll told a packed auditorium that the decision had been made against the backdrop of a 10% UK decline in applications for engineering courses. `These programmes are costly to run and so we were forced to review our position. We decided the department was not viable and looked for ways to withdraw,’ he said.

Middlesex’s closure follows Westminster’s decision to shelve its civil engineering department because of a lack of applicants.

However, while newer universities cannot attract students to fill laboratory seats, the blue-chip institutions, such as Imperial College, Cambridge and Nottingham, claim to have no problem whatsoever in attracting sufficient numbers of students.

Peter Wason, chief executive of the Institution of Incorporated Engineers, says Middlesex’s problems can be explained by its location rather than a general malaise in engineering’s image. `The college faces a geographical problem attracting people to London, which is an expensive place to study,’ he says.

New universities are also vying in a crowded market for a diminishing stream of students. Greenwich, Kingston, South Bank and Westminster are among a total of 24 universities teaching engineering degrees in the south east.

Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures show traditional engineering courses are competing with more fashionable computers and information technology courses.

Applicants for mechanical engineering courses fell 9.4% last year and there was an 11.1% decline in student numbers in electronics, compared to a 20% increase among those in computing science and software engineering.

Marie Jackson, Middlesex’s director of communications, says the problem was compounded by the uncertainty of recruiting a majority of students through clearing and, despite scoring a healthy 19 out of 24 in a recent teaching audit, taking students with low A-level grades. `We had to leave engineering to the bigger players,’ she says. `The newer universities started with nothing and we have to provide courses that can compete.’

Driscoll adds: `Year-on-year we have faced funding cuts across the whole university. We have to have a viable cohort of students to survive in the face of funding pressures.’

Wason draws wider conclusions: `It’s very sad that engineering is not recognised as an exciting career. There are so many misconceptions, such as we work in dirty environments and are badly paid.’

David Seale, director of the Engineering Employers’ Federation’s regional association in Basingstoke, says the answer is to promote engineering and science to under 12s, but believes the problem is shared across the developed world. Andrew Ramsay, director of engineers’ regulation at the Engineering Council, echoes this view: `Even in Germany, where the nation once knelt at engineers’ feet, the number of people taking the subject is falling,’ he says.

Whatever the explanation, the students are at the sharp end of the decision. They face uncertainty and potential loss of time and money before their careers have even started.