A recent report commissioned by three leading engineering institutions has slammed efforts to promote engineering and the study of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.
UK Engineering 2016, a wide-ranging report written by John Uff QC and commissioned by the three largest professional engineering institutions (PEIs) the ICE, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Engineering & Technology (IET).
It includes particular criticism of engineering promotional body EngineeringUK, the Royal Academy of Engineering and many other bodies, for their ineffective efforts to promote the industry to young people.
Big Bang Fair: Designed to get school children interested in engineering
“As regards the activities of EngineeringUK, it is undeniable that their efforts to promote increased entry to the profession have not achieved notable success and that the UK is still a long way off achieving the increased numbers taking either A-level physics or NVQ3 technical/engineering qualifications which are required for the future of engineering,” Uff says in the report.
And according to some assumptions, the supply of engineering graduates is falling short by at least 20,000 annually.
EngineeringUK and the Royal Academy of Engineering organise the Tomorrow’s Engineers schools engagement programme, which operates in partnership with PEIs, businesses and not for profit organisations.
When you compare the STEM statistics in this country with any other, we’re at the bottom, consistently
The programme also includes initiatives such as the Big Bang Fair, the Young Scientists’ and Engineers’ Fair as well as industry visits, workshops, STEM Ambassador partnerships and careers resources.
But despite two decades of endeavour, Uff says there has been no material increase in students taking STEM courses.
The report acknowledges one problem: promotional activities organised by EngineeringUK and other bodies often overlap, so their success or otherwise is difficult to measure. To prevent this overlap, it is suggested EngineeringUK’s activities be merged with other bodies.
Uff told New Civil Engineer that there was some evidence that the number of young people taking up STEM subjects might in fact, now, be improving. But the failure to reverse the falling numbers of people going into engineering careers is still a “huge problem”.
“When you compare the STEM statistics in this country with any other, we’re at the bottom, consistently,” Uff says.
Hairdressing versus physics
“Girls still prefer hairdressing to physics. It’s an absolute failure to engage with half the population.”
The Royal Academy of Engineering has expressed concern that the STEM skills pipeline has failed to produce the numbers of engineers indicated by the number of initial entrants, with losses of some 50% after GCSEs, the first assessment hurdle.
EngineeringUK chief executive Paul Jackson
The collapse follows on in older age groups, most notably in physics and in particular among girls where only 2.5% progress to A-level.
EngineeringUK chief executive Paul Jackson defends his organisation’s record. “There’s lots of reports around, our board looks at all these reports, tries to gauge their value and how to maximise benefits for our beneficiaries,” he says.
State of Engineering
EngineeringUK also produces its own State of Engineering report, which provides an annual take on the industry’s health. Jackson points out that these pursuits, and the idea of selling the engineering brand – did not even exist when EngineeringUK started in 2009.
“The understanding of what engineering was, was pretty limited, nobody was measuring it at all. We put in place the measures to do that, then set ambitions in terms of amount of population we wanted to reach,” Jackson says.
The work takes time, and results might only occur in generations, not years.“It is important to remember, we grew to a national network in three to four years. An 11 year old in 2009 is only now just finishing off their apprenticeship or degree.”
The number of visitors to the Big Bang Fair, EngineeringUK’s other big project, has risen from 6,500 to 80,000. But it too has been criticised for a lack of evidential results – more students studying engineering subjects.
Jackson says the event costs £4M, but probably gains up to £30M in multiplier effects, media coverage, as well as providing important networking opportunities with employers.
EngineeringUK’s website says that for the £7M annual investment in its activities, 400,000 young people are reached and over £10M of media value is generated. Employer activities in schools, which would cost almost £11M to deliver are encouraged and supported.
Could mergers be the answer?
Uff says mergers, restructuring or changing funding arrangements could provide a solution. He also notes EngineeringUK’s success in attracting external private funding and recommends the three largest PEIs increase their funding and support for the Big Bang Fair and Tomorrow’s Engineers programmes.
The three major PEIs, which together provide nearly £4M annually to EngineeringUK, of which, a grant of £2.5M goes to regulatory body the Engineering Council to fund its operations.
Uff says that, before his review, professional engineering institutions, Engineering UK and other bodies had discussions about achieving changes to the governance of EngineeringUK. But these produced no agreements.
Any changes to EngineeringUK’s governance would require a 75% majority support from its members – PEIs plus board members and 34 corporate members.
Increased meetings between institutions
ICE chief executive Nick Baveystock says that meetings between institutions have increased. EngineeringUK and another promotional body STEM Learning are working closer together, and the Royal Academy and EngineeringUK have begun talks about fusing some of their programmes together.
“We don’t share enough of these things, knowledge events, we don’t share enough. That’s what’s really struck us, particularly with the multidisciplinary nature of the engineer these days,” Baveystock says.
Baveystock says Uff’s review was particularly critical of how engineering institutions had worked to attract the next generation. The review provides a good benchmark, catalyst and “focus”, he says.
“We have a shortfall, we have fewer fully qualified engineers than we had 10 years ago. We need to get more of them.
“I think having clarity and focus on that objective will encourage more.”