Ring the changes

UK universities must retain their positions as ‘top-tier’ suppliers of leading-edge aerospace research to ensure the country remains globally competitive, says Mark Lowenberg

The UK aerospace industry enjoys a close working relationship with our universities, which provide graduates with the skills and knowledge demanded by the sector and serve much of its research needs.

The sector has gone through significant change, the ‘primes’ having consolidated into a smaller number of large transnational companies relying heavily on a global supply chain. With growing international competition, there is pressure for these big groups to consider universities as a part of that supply chain, raising the prospect of industry relying less on its traditional relationships with local universities and seeking the skills it is after more widely.

This applies in particular to research. When industry identifies a technical need, its priority will be to source the very best academic group in that field, whether from the UK or abroad, forcing universities to compete on the international stage.

The nature of government support is also changing, both for students and research. There is an expectation that university research should support UK industry in a more rational manner, with larger-scale centres of excellence in specific fields being formed at particular institutions. The EPSRC’s new Doctoral Training Centre mechanism for postgraduate training is an example of this.

Both government and industry priorities point towards the need for universities to organise themselves into research groups that are large enough to form strategic relationships with companies, with additional state support where available. This is likely to be the basis of university-industry research relationships in the UK in the foreseeable future — research groups with the critical mass necessary to cover the depth and breadth of industry needs in a specific field, and strong enough to help drive the agenda for research within the companies concerned.

These groups can be multi-institutional to help cover the necessary range of skills at world-leading level, but they must be identifiable as entities with which industry can engage constructively.

At Bristol University we are already seeing the benefits of strategic research relationships. One example of this is through the Advanced Composites Centre for Innovation and Science (ACCIS) which brings together experts in composite materials in the university’s engineering, science and medical faculties. In aerospace, it has facilitated partnerships with Rolls-Royce, GE Aviation and Airbus, some of which are linked with other universities, notably Oxford and Bath.

For UK universities to retain their positions as ‘top-tier’ suppliers of leading-edge research to the aerospace industry, the formation of strategic partnerships is likely to gain momentum. These provide benefits to both parties far beyond the traditional series of individual research projects. The model includes the university as a trusted expert partner in driving industry research needs. This is typically established over a fairly long period of time to allow growth and develop an efficient integrated way of working, often with temporary exchange of staff in both directions.

While such strategic partnerships will benefit our universities and industry in terms of global competitiveness, there will always be a need for academics to engage in fundamental research. It is therefore vital that government maintains its role in supporting novel research ideas from whatever source they arise: the EPSRC’s Doctoral Training Account system of funding UK postgraduates and its responsive mode research funding mechanism should continue alongside large-scale centres of excellence to promote innovation and cross-pollination of ideas.

Of course, not all areas of the aerospace industry have large research budgets, but the entire sector is reliant on an adequate provision of well-trained engineering graduates. There is a healthy relationship between universities, the Engineering Council and its associated professional institutions and the employers. In the aerospace arena, the universities are largely able to provide the graduates industry needs, although there are subjects where skills are in short supply — avionics systems engineering in particular.

As with research, however, UK universities are competing with those in other countries — particularly in the EU — as industry seeks the best applicants.

There are, however, some worrying trends for both university engineering departments and the industry. The falling numbers of young people choosing to study mathematics and physics at A-level will further reduce the pool of academically-able students entering aerospace degree programmes. The fee system may well alter student choices, if not away from engineering then possibly towards three-year bachelors rather than four-year masters programmes which are regarded as the qualification of choice for employers.

It is to be hoped that the aerospace sector will engage with government and the Engineering Council, and the Royal Aeronautical Society, to help promote the career to young people and guide universities in responding to the various conflicting pressures. Ideally, industry should embark on sponsorship programmes to entice young people to enter this field without fear of graduating with huge four-year loans to repay.

Mark Lowenberg is head of aerospace engineering at Bristol University