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Relax entry requirements to improve gender balance, says top university

The number of women taking up civil engineering degrees could be boosted dramatically, if universities relaxed the requirements they set at A Level.

That’s the view of University College London’s (UCL) civil, environmental, and geomatic engineering department. It has seen female representation on degree courses climb above 30% after removing a requirement that undergraduates must have A Level mathematics and a science eight years ago.

This, along with other significant changes to its degree programme in the same year, explains UCL’s position on top of The Guardian league table for civil engineering universities, according to the department’s professor Richard Simons.

“We aimed to allow girls to come on to courses more comfortably – so we removed the requirement for maths and science at A Level,” Simons told NCE.

“Now over 30% of our students are female, plus a third of our academic staff and professors, and half of the department’s senior management team is also women.”

The target is 50% across the board, he adds.

UCL MEng graduate Rachel Smith and professor Nick Tyler discuss why maths and physics at A Level isn't always essential for civil engineering undergraduates.

A new introduction this year means undergraduates can take a minor subject, in the style of the US degree system, such as mechanical engineering. “It means they graduate with a civil engineering degree, having ‘majored’ in civils, but with another string to their bow in the minor subject,” said Simons. “Again, the aim is to give them a more rounded experience and skills more suited to what employers are demanding.”

UCL’s position is in sharp contrast to other leading civil engineering universities, which demand A Level mathematics, and usually a science as well.

What A Levels do top civil engineering universities require?

University College London
A*AA-AAA; no specific subjects required

Imperial
A* in mathematics; A in all A2 mathematics modules; A*A in two further A Levels, one of which must be physics

Southampton
A*AA; mathematics and another science required

Birmingham
AAB; mathematics required

Manchester
AAB; mathematics and physics required

Bath
A in A2 mathematics, physics and/or further mathematics recommended but not mandatory

Surrey
AAB; mathematics and physics required

City
320 UCAS tariff points; mathematics grade B required

Undergraduates at UCL are still expected to have strong A Level results – usually A*AA – and to have an A in in GCSE maths. And they are left in no doubt that maths is part of the degree programme.

“The difference with our approach, is that students are engaged with engineering problems immediately,” said Simons. “They still have to do maths, but in a project environment – so the maths is more relevant.”

Simons points to the example of Rachel Smith, a 2011 civils graduate who arrived at UCL with A Levels in fine art, psychology, and chemistry.

“Like so many others, when I was choosing my A Levels, I had reasons for not picking maths and physics,” she said. “Be it not getting on with the teachers, or something else.”

UCL civils professor Nick Tyler said: “We were losing out on bright, talented, creative students. And it wasn’t only us; the whole civil engineering profession was losing out on that talent – because of a decision people make at the age of 15 or 16.”

UCL’s change of approach in 2006 had several aims, only one of which was boosting female entrants. “We also wanted to develop the problem-solving skills in our graduates that employers seek, to attract the best applicants, and to reduce the drop-out and failure rates,” Simon explained.

This was addressed through: balancing the curriculum between eight one-week, full-time multidisciplinary projects and traditional lectures; introducing a high proportion of group work to encourage peer learning and motivation; and placing emphasis on the financial, social and political context in which engineering projects are delivered.

UCL has largely achieved all its aims, said Simons. Drop-out rates, typically 15% according to the professor, “have disappeared”.

Simons says UCL has been criticised for “dumbing down” the profession, but insists this is not the case, as The Guardian’s league tables would suggest; it has achieved 3rd, 1st and 1st in the past three years.

“Our programmes teach across all the major fields of civil engineering – structures, soils, fluids, design, transport studies, surveying and materials – and we pick projects that cut across all those fields so that we avoid teaching in ‘silos’,” he said. “We also include final-year options such as GIS, finance, law, entrepreneurship, and management, to give our course more ‘real world’ grounding.”

Tyler believes UCL’s decision to relax its entry requirements has also benefited students from a more traditional civil engineering A Level background.

“Typically 10% of our intake has an ‘unusual’ academic background,” he said.

“But they are a real catalyst for the others. They are people who want to change the world – and they realise that a way of doing that is the ordered engineering way of thinking.”

And the ICE’s official guidance

Students who show an interest and aptitude for civil engineering should be encouraged to pursue physics and mathematics as their core subjects for their A-levels.

By taking mathematics and physics, they can gain entry to a civil engineering degree at university. The choice for their third and/or fourth A-level is more flexible. Typical choices are: chemistry; geography; design technology; further mathematics; modern foreign language.

Readers' comments (5)

  • I'm all for balancing things up but surely relaxing the requirements of any test, no matter who the candidate is, is diluting the quality and therefore diminishing the respect for that test? If you are going to relax the requirements for anything at least carry out an aptitude test so that you know everyone is on the same playing field no matter what subjects their background is?
    On the other hand I would argue that maths and science are essentials building blocks of engineering...

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  • I believe this is an excellent way of increasing the diversity of engineering graduates - and a diverse skills base provides a flexible work force - something I think is important in solving problems. An alternative point of view within a team can be an excellent opportunity to provide a solution that otherwise wouldn't be realised.

    What defines quality? Being able to do advanced calculus? I believe that mathematics can sometimes lose context, and with it student interest in some cases. Maths is important, but I think that as times change, we need to be adaptable and have an array of skills and knowledge, and that doesn't necessarily mean understanding advanced mathematics.

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  • I think it a shame that an article about changing subject requirements to encourage diversity in candidates was given such a negative and misleading headline. The article discusses changing the subjects that are required not the grades that are needed yet the headline seems to suggest that female candidates need some sort of special treatment to make it to selection. This sort of positive discrimination (or suggestion of) is totally inappropriate and does not help with addressing the imbalance in the industry. We should be encouraging students to think about engineering much earlier in their school careers so we have a more representative group of people coming forward to interview. Promoting the idea that women need special treatment or ‘relaxed requirements’ is wrong and an idea that is not uncommon in the industry; it’s disappointing to see it reiterated here.

    Diversity is great and necessary, whether that’s in terms of academic or personal background and it’s good to see UCL recognising that. It seems that UCL have made lots of changes to their course that could have attributed to the increase of 30% women on the course, it seems unfair to me however to suggest, as the headline does, that this is just because the implied less able female candidates are given an easier ride.

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  • Perhaps I should clarify: when, nearly ten years ago now, UCL removed the entry restrictions on subjects studied at A-level we also raised the grades required for admission to A*AA. So any student without Maths A-level had to have achieved very high academic standards in the subjects they had taken. They had also scored a very high grade in Maths at GCSE to demonstrate their basic aptitude for the subject. Those students who have come in without Maths A-level are a relatively small minority, but they have all done well - in some cases exceptionally so.

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  • Perhaps I should clarify: when, nearly ten years ago now, UCL removed the entry restrictions on subjects studied at A-level we also raised the grades required for admission to A*AA. So any student without Maths A-level had to have achieved very high academic standards in the subjects they had taken. They had also scored a very high grade in Maths at GCSE to demonstrate their basic aptitude for the subject. Those students who have come in without Maths A-level are a relatively small minority, but they have all done well - in some cases exceptionally so.

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