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The profession | Institutions reject mergers cropped

Why join a professional engineering institution?

For many it has been seen as the sole route to a fully developed career: study hard, join a professional engineering institution (PEI), such as the ICE, and become chartered.

But the array of PEIs – 35 in the UK, ranging from the ICE and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), to the Institute of Physics, and the Chartered Institute of Plumbing & Heating Engineering (CIPHE) – is bewildering for some. In comparison, Australia and Hong Kong both have one, representing the entire engineering community.

But why is this degree of specialisation in the UK a problem?

Declining membership

Total membership among the UK’s PEIs over the last 10 years has declined about 13%, to 231,034, according to the Engineering Council figures. And while estimates about how many unaccounted for engineers are out there vary, best estimates are about 3M. This means the fragmented PEIs’ membership between them represent only 17% of UK engineers; those registered as IEngs, EngTechs, or Chartered engineers account for just 5%.

Pei 2 1

Pei 2 1

So where is everybody? That is the subject of an independent review, UK Engineering 2016, released in March and commissioned by the three biggest PEIs: The ICE, IMechE and the Institution of Engineering & Technology (IET), which between them account for 70% of all UK PEI members.

They chose barrister John Uff to write it. Originally a civil engineer, Uff qualified as a barrister, and specialised in construction disputes and arbitration, chairing several public inquiries in the UK and abroad. Uff worked pro bono on the review, canvassing views from across engineering, taking hundreds of written and oral submissions over six months.

The chief problem he identified is that while engineering is a broad profession and is increasingly expanding into new areas of expertise, the professional bodies are still operating largely in a 19th Century model. “As regards the contribution of the institutions, it was considered the majority continue to be inward facing, elitist and insular and thus failed to attract sufficient potential engineers,” says Uff’s report.

Skills split

Engineering is increasingly split not by sector but by skills. Multi-disciplined youngsters are valued, so is adeptness in digital, creative and interpersonal activities. Many starting careers today will end up in vastly different parts of engineering. Indeed, many youngsters starting their careers today will find themselves working in new fields that do not exist yet, let alone a field that has its own PEI.

Although Uff made 20 recommendations in his wide-ranging review, it is his first piece of advice that has proved most controversial: that PEIs should form a joint body to create mergers, eventually combining membership, so that anyone joining one institution would enjoy the opportunities provided by them all. Uff has said it was the PEIs’ action on this recommendation that would determine how seriously they took his report.

It was rejected outright.

Rejecting mergers

Of course there are good reasons why. Firstly, many PEIs are run as large commercial enterprises. “It’s what all the big PEIs do, they are struggling to maximise their asset, and I think their primary regard is to make sure the cash keeps turning over,” says Uff.  He argues there is extensive duplication of administrative and professional functions, to the extent that if these charitable bodies were subject to normal commercial forces and pressures, many of their functions would have been merged long ago.

I think their primary regard is to make sure the cash keeps turning over

John Uff, Barrister

But as well as economic sustainability to consider, there are history and traditions. One hundred years ago there were 50 institutions, with many since wound up or taken over, rather than merged.

There is also a long history of reports and inquiries – the Finniston review of the 1980s and the Hawley review of the 2000s to name a couple. Most covered the same ground as Uff and largely failed or made some problems even worse. Uff acknowledges this, and says instead of mergers being imposed by an external body, or PEI executives, perhaps change could occur gradually in steps.

Joint responses

Since the review’s release, the PEIs have put together joint responses on Brexit and the UK government’s Industrial Strategy – a small but promising step.

Also, they have taken Uff’s 19 recommendations and announced five “workstreams” to guide future action (see box).

In response to the merger question, they have committed only to “support for knowledge sharing across engineering disciplines”.

To that end, ICE director general Nick Baveystock says “a combined knowledge portal” is in the works to share knowledge and events among PEIs. It is “not ready yet, but it’s already really looking impressive,” he says.

On Uff’s report, he says it is an important catalyst for change, especially in a post-Brexit political climate and when engineering underwrites more than 20% of gross value added to the UK economy. “I think there is a momentum that Uff allows us to harness to transform the way we deliver engineering in this country.”

IMechE impatience

The IMechE appears more impatient for action.

“We should have been getting on with this some time ago,” says a more critical IMechE chief executive Stephen Tetlow. He calls the report a “wake up call” for PEIs and the wider engineering community to “start acting in a 21st Century way”.

Tetlow adds that his own view is that the work done after the review – behind the scenes negotiations, workstreams, joint responses – has not gone far enough. “The nature of the profession is changing, crossing boundaries very fast, and we need a much more federated approach.”

The IET, itself the product of a recent (2006) merger between the Institution of Electrical Engineers and Institution of Incorporated Engineers, also calls for change. “What we need to do is to bring the capabilities of the PEIs together in a way that provides a harmonised way of accessing things if you have interests in different parts of engineering,” says IET chief executive Nigel Fine.“Once you create an environment that is inclusive of all people in engineering… then you’re welcoming those who are creating the specialisations of the future.”

No mergers please

But not mergers, definitely not mergers, he says. “There are 35 PEIs, and at one level you can say there are too many. But they exist because they fulfil needs,” Fine says.

The Uff review was led by the most popular PEIs. But it will affect scores of the smaller bodies – some up to 100 or 1,000 times smaller.

With about 5,000 members, of which 1,700 are registered, The Welding Institute (TWI) is far from the largest or the smallest. TWI chief executive Chris Eady says, tongue firmly in check, that he is “delighted” with the idea of mergers: “I would love to see the ICE, IMechE and IET merge, they should form a general engineering institution, if that’s what they want. But I don’t think my members want TWI to merge with anyone else.”

Eady says TWI is proud to offer unique and valuable specialist services, including issuing 60,000 Certification Scheme for Welding and Inspection Personnel certificates worldwide annually, as well as conducting £8M in research and development. “So to say we’re a small institution is right, in terms of what the Engineering Council does, but we do significantly more than that.”


Uff review key points


“Professional engineering institutions should set up a joint body to promote mergers of their separate activities with a view to eventual combining of membership such that anyone joining one institution would be entitled to enjoy the facilities and opportunities of all.”  - John Uff

Summary of key recommendations:

  • PEIs must urgently find the 3M people in the UK who work as engineers and have no affiliation with an institution
  • Efforts to promote engineering and STEM subjects to young people (currently undertaken by EngineeringUK, The Royal Academy of Engineering, and many others) overlap in places, are not working, and requires an overhaul.
  • The Royal Academy of Engineering should expand and continue being “the voice of the profession”, but should seek a more representative membership
  • Self-regulation through the Engineering Council, with powers devolved to institutions, works well and must be maintained

In response, the PEI’s have declared targeted workstreams on:

  • advice to governments
  • promotion of the profession in schools
  • support for knowledge sharing across engineering disciplines
  • a review of the efficiency of accreditation of academic courses and
  • a programme to engage and support members of the engineering industry who are not currently professionally registered


Readers' comments (1)

  • I've just moved to New Zealand, where there is a single institution for all engineers, IPENZ. I think you lose something in being general: engagement at events and publications is likely to be less when they are targeted at such a wide range of expertise. I value my membership of the ICE and IStructE for being specific to my profession.

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