Plotting a course for success

It’s that time of year when an A-level student’s thoughts turn from raucous celebration of results towards the future, and specifically towards university.

For those who care about the future of engineering, science and technology in the UK, the choices they make now matter, so what can we glean from the latest crop of youngsters as they prepare to embark on campus life?

Helpfully, the universities admissions service UCAS publishes detailed figures of the number of students accepted for the variety of degree courses on offer. So we can see, for example, that law bestrides the popularity league like a colossus, with more than 14,500 signed up for a life of litigation.

At the other end of the spectrum, a grand total of two have been accepted on classical Greek studies courses, putting the subject bottom of the popularity league along with something called, intriguingly, ‘Others in Engineering’. Who or what the others are we have no idea, but any suggestions from readers are welcome.

Moving to more significant matters, the figures show overall acceptances are up on the same time last year, and engineering and science-related disciplines are keeping pace with, or exceeding, the general upwards trend.

In engineering, mechanical and civil have both shown double-digit percentage increases in the number of students accepted onto courses. Subjects identified as ‘strategically important’ by the government also attracted more applicants. Maths, for example, saw a seven per cent rise compared with 2007, while physics — a source of anxiety for some time — managed a modest but welcome increase of 1.3 per cent.

It would be foolish to draw hard and fast conclusions from these statistics, which are a snapshot of the situation in mid-August, but it seems the subjects that will provide the next generation of UK engineers are at least holding their own, while some specialist areas, such as medical technology, are growing strongly.

However, getting students onto these courses is only half the battle in laying solid foundations for the UK’s future technology economy. Converting the graduates of three or four years’ time into engineering or technology employees has proved a struggle over the last two decades, with many instead choosing to chase the pot of gold at the end of the management consultancy or fund management rainbow.

This time around though, the current university entrants are beginning their studies at a time of economic uncertainty, with the financial services sector — the source of much of the graduate bounty — looking decidedly rocky.

By 2011/12 engineering may well seem like more of a solid bet for the discerning graduate.

This is not to wish the service sector ill, but rather to hope that some of the nation’s brightest and best will once again give more than a passing glance at the business of designing and making things.

Andrew Lee, editor