Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 21

Submission from the Royal Academy of Engineering


  1.  This submission is based on first-hand experience gained by The Royal Academy of Engineering (Note 1) from its study on Educating Engineers for the 21st Century (Note 2) : through its National Engineering Project (NEP) and through its support for the launch of the 14-19 Diploma in Engineering in the London Boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth ( Note 3). The Academy is also undertaking further research on experience-led engineering degrees and has embarked on a further study on Engineers for Enterprise for DIUS resulting from Lord Sainsbury of Turville's recommendation in The Race to the Top his review of Government Science and Innovation policy (Note 4).

2.  This submission has been reviewed by the Academy's Standing Committee for Education and Training (SCET) and reflects the policies and practices which they have developed and/or recommended. The views expressed below are based on experience gained in engineering and technology only.


  3.  The process of selection for admission to most Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) seems to work reasonably well. The engineering departments of the research oriented universities suffer the well publicised difficulties that the A level examination grades currently do not discriminate sufficiently among the upper quartile of candidates so that heavy reliance has to be placed on interview references or other indicators of engagement in engineering such as participation in extra-curricular engineering activities such as those operated under the Academy's Best Programme. It is hoped that the reintroduction of the A star grade will go some way to ease this problem. Otherwise it is anticipated that additional testing might have to be introduced as is already occurring in some universities for mathematics and physics candidates. Many believe that the selection process would be improved considerably if the Examination Boards could make full disclosure of actual performance on individual examination modules available to Admissions Tutors.

4.  The Academy is keen to broaden access to the engineering profession in particular in encouraging more women and ethnic minorities (Note 3). The Academy has gone to considerable lengths to ensure that the content of the 14-19 Diploma in Engineering will meet the requirements for entry to Higher Education (HE). The NEP is also establishing good practice for the development of appropriate Foundation Degrees and the delivery of HE through the FE Sectors.

  5.  In order to meet the Government targets for skilled personnel in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) sectors it will be necessary to continue the drive to encourage more of our able youngsters to continue with STEM subjects in school, college and university and ultimately enter the STEM professions. The establishment of the High Level STEM Strategy Board is an effective start to implementing the Government strategy in this area and every effort must be made to ensure that it is properly resourced and implemented.

  6.  In addition, the work of HEFCE and more recently HEFCW in widening participation in STEM subjects must be acknowledged. HEFCE in particular has demonstrated significant commitment in this area. The Academy's London Engineering Project has demonstrated that engineering can be positioned as a viable career choice in the minds of young people regardless of their background, ethnicity or gender. The 14-19 Diploma in Engineering, with its strong uptake in more disadvantaged areas of England is well placed to offer such students clear pathways into the engineering profession.


  7.  A major finding of the Academy's Educating Engineers for the 21st Century study is that the prestige and funding of teaching in research-active engineering departments has been compromised by a disproportionate emphasis on the research output of staff as a consequence of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). This has had serious repercussions on two levels: not only has the quality of current teaching been adversely affected, academic staff also now have little time or incentive to develop the type of new course content that will be needed in the future.

8.  Remedial action is required to ensure that high quality teaching is perceived as central to academic career prospects and suitably rewarded through both remuneration and promotion. Appropriate measures would include: the provision of adequate funding for undergraduate teaching; the development of quantitative "best practice" criteria for assessing teaching quality, a task that could be devolved to the Engineering Subject Centre (engSC); and the inauguration of high profile award schemes by the professional institutions and other national and international engineering bodies to recognise and reward excellence in engineering teaching.

  9.  Amongst the most important findings of the study were the close correlation it showed between the views of industry and the universities on the major issues concerning undergraduate engineering education and the confirmation it provided of the enthusiasm of the universities for closer collaborative links with industry. University engineering departments, for instance, overwhelmingly concurred with the view that their courses need to provide more experience in the application of theoretical understanding to real applications of the type encountered in industry. The primary means of satisfying this objective is through effective design and project work in which students can see the opportunities and the necessity for innovation. But in turn such work makes a number of demands of its own including the provision of pertinent case study material from industry and the availability of adequate up-to-date laboratory facilities within the universities themselves. Further the teaching on such courses is far more labour intensive than traditional classroom lecturing. With current pressures on research performance (see 7 above) many engineering departments would be unable to provide additional teaching resources. There is also the issue of funding, which is currently a cause of great concern within the university engineering community. Engineering courses used to be funded by the HEFCE at a rate of twice the basic unit of resource, but over the period 2003-04 this ratio was reduced to just 1.7. However a consensus exists within the universities that this allocation needs to be at least 2.5 and possibly as much as three times the basic unit if engineering courses are to meet future requirements for enhanced design and project work.

  10.  Nevertheless the overall picture also contained some strongly positive elements. Nearly three fifths of the academic respondents, for instance, were exponents of the CDIO (Conceive, Design, Implement, Operate) approach to learning and teaching which puts an emphasis on articulating and solving problems rather than analysis, a highly appropriate approach for engineers. Around three quarters also expressed support for the introduction of new types of engineering course, such as biotechnology or nanotechnology. In addition just over half reported they had had contact with at least one or other of the HEFCE-funded Engineering Subject Centre (engSC) or the UK Centre for Materials Education.

  11.  Following Lord Sainsbury of Turville's recommendation (7.17) in his review of Government Science and Innovation Policy (Note 4) DIUS has asked the Academy, in collaboration with the engSC to undertake a study for the further development and implementation of experience-led engineering degrees. This is now underway and will report by November 2009.


  12.  The Academy's SCET members commend the excellent work being undertaken developing the transcript system in line with the Diploma Supplement requirements under the Bologna process and welcome the additional detailed information this would provide for engineering graduates, their employers and their Engineering Institutions. However, they feel that this should supplement rather than replace the current Honours classification system.

13.  The International recognition for UK qualifications in engineering has been hard won and well established for many years through FEANI in Europe and the Washington Accord agreements. This is the responsibility of the Engineering Council UK working with the Engineering Institutions. Together they have established a register of individually accredited university courses, based on the current Honours system, which meet the academic requirements of engineers to ensure that they can proceed to qualify as Chartered and Incorporated engineers. The four level Honours gradation (First, Upper Second, Lower Second, Third) system and the Pass degree are well understood by all stakeholders and there is no evidence that Examiners have any difficulty in administering this system. Employers find it a useful, simple metric of great use in the early recruitment process where they do not wish to be overburdened by large quantities of transcript data.

  14.  The members are also particularly sensitive to the high esteem in which UK engineering qualifications are held internationally and the large number of overseas students who elect to study here. The award of a UK Honours degree is held in high regard in many parts of the world and is considered to be greatly superior to a mere pass degree. This distinction should not be sacrificed.


  No comments to make.


  1.  The Royal Academy of Engineering [RAEng] brings together over 1200 distinguished engineers, drawn from all the engineering disciplines. Its aim is to promote excellence in engineering for the benefit of the people of the United Kingdom. (

2.  Full details of the study and the supporting materials can be found at:

  3.  The NEP started with the London Engineering Project pilot in Southwark in late 2005. This will work with five universities and 50 schools over 4.5 years. The pattern will be repeated, modified and enhanced, as appropriate, in six regions in England over the next ten years. The NEP supports schools with their raised profile for SET by providing students with access to hands-on SET activities in class, residential and other SET learning events out of school and a system for mentoring of students with a capacity for higher education and ability in SET. This attention paid on schools and groups so-far unengaged in engineering is seen as key to strengthening the engineering profession in the long-term. The NEP is led by the Royal Academy of Engineering with the generous initial support of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

  4.  "The Race to the Top—A review of Government's Science and Innovation Policies" Lord Sainsbury of Turville (HM Treasury October 2007).

November 2008

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