Plant & Works Engineering

Promoting engineering awareness

Published:  01 January, 1990

Aaron Blutstein spoke to Professor Graham Davies FREng, head of the School of Engineering, University of Birmingham, and a leading member of the standing committee on Education and Training at the Royal Academy of Engineering, about the challenges facing the engineering profession in the UK.

Modern manufacturing is about capitalising on cutting-edge technology; it is increasingly focused on process as much as product. While low value added production at the basic component level will be increasingly outsourced, the key skills of high value added complex system integration, which is the key to successful global competition, can be retained in the UK.

Professor Graham Davies FREng, head of the School of Engineering, University of Birmingham, and a leading member of the standing committee on Education and Training at the Royal Academy of Engineering says today's engineering is very high tech, with jobs in the creative industries, aerospace, nanotechnology, pharmaceutical, food etc. all requiring engineers. He explains it is a different sort of engineering from a few years ago - "these are the sunrise industries of the future”.

Key to the future of engineering however is promoting the profession to future generations. If the UK is to compete globally to become the key hub for the Knowledge Economy, as envisaged in the UK Government Science and Innovation Framework 2004-2014, there is an urgent need to create a highly skilled workforce of engineers and engineering technicians.

Professor Graham Davies says we must encourage children into a career in engineering by interesting and exciting children in the challenges of science and engineering and then fostering and developing this interest at all stages of their career from primary school onwards.

Davies explains the Royal Academy of Engineering is seeking to achieve this through its own Best Programme ( and by encouraging a wide range of partners who provide support and training courses to encourage and develop students in science, engineering and technology to join the Shape the Future campaign ( He says this is the first step in response to the Government"s Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Programme Report published in October 2006 which calls for better co-ordinated support for promotion of engineering and technology in schools.

But a significant obstacle facing organisations such as the Royal Academy of Engineering is shifting public attitudes towards, and understanding of engineering and technology. Davies explains: “The engineering profession is making considerable efforts to promote a modern image of engineering and there are early signs that the numbers of students applying for engineering courses are gradually starting to rise.”

But according to Davies, the root problem in promoting awareness of the engineering profession to children is raising the general awareness of engineering careers and opportunities to teachers and parents. Davies says careers advice in schools remains a major worry. But he explains excellent material continues to be generated highlighting the opportunities in engineering. For example, the latest Universities UK Research Report "The economic benefits of a degree" shows that, compared to someone with two A levels, an engineering graduate would earn an extra £243,730 over a lifetime, second only to Medicine (£340,315) and well above the average degree premium (£160,061).

Davies says the Academy’s current thrust is to target students and their parents through Shape the Future activities.  Special efforts are also being made to make science, technology and career teachers more aware of exciting and rewarding careers available to students who take sciences at 'A’ level or follow the new Specialised Diploma courses.

The Royal Academy of Engineering is working with the National Education Business Partnerships Network and the newly created National and Regional Science Learning Centres to provide over 1000 teachers a year with a day’s experience in high technology companies through the Shape the Future: STEPS (Science, Technology and Engineering Placement) at Work programme. Davies says this will enable them to better place their teaching in an industrial context and, most importantly, inform their students of the career potential.  He adds, “it is well established that a teacher’s influence is of the highest importance in student career choice”.

University engineering education

Davies highlights The Academy is undertaking an extensive Review of University Engineering Education in its Educating Engineers for the 21st Century Study.  It has already published (March 2006) the Industry View after a survey of 444 companies.  This has been followed by a questionnaire to all UK university engineering departments to assess their response and determine what action is being taken. 

He explains both industry and the universities agree the quality of UK engineering graduates is world class and compares well with European and US graduates, adding industry would like more of them.  Davies says in the future they would like to see more industrial contact and content in the courses in order to enable graduates to better apply their theoretical understanding to real industry problems.  All courses should be developed in such a way as to inculcate (at every stage) a multidisciplinary approach to systems integration.

Davies explains: “The CDIO (Conceive Design Implement Operate) approach is being used by 59 % of the 81 departments which responded and many more are doing similar things.  All departments stress the importance of Design and Make Projects and believe that these should be increased as they are the key to encouraging innovation and creativity. The role of the Higher Education Academy's Engineering Subject Centre at Loughborough in encouraging and disseminating best practice was praised and this should be expanded.”

He says the universities would like to do more: “The major obstacle is resource for the upgrading of laboratories and developing new facilities.  It is considered that more financial support is needed.  The level of support in the HEFCE funding formula for science and engineering should be raised to at least 2.5, if not 3, times the basic unit of resource compared to the current allocation of 1.7 (medicine’s allocation is 4 times the basic).  This would increase the average level of HEFCE funding from around £8500 per student per year to around £14,000 (which equates to the average overseas student fee).”

Davies comments more emphasis should also be placed on teaching excellence in the appraisal and promotion of staff: “The Research Assessment Exercise has placed a premium on research output; there should be similar incentives for teaching. A focus group of recent graduates agreed with these points.  The practical projects were the most enjoyable and beneficial parts of the course: the emphasis on practical (real) problem solving should be introduced at the outset; theory becomes much easier to digest when its practical use is made apparent.

“Schools and colleges need to be resourced to deliver STEM subjects in particular the facilities needed to support the new Specialised Diplomas. However, the major problem at the schools level is the shortage of specialist teachers.”

Industry support

Davies says industry support is crucial to engineering education at all stages.  He explains the current Academy study on Educating Engineers for the 21st Century concludes that industry should continue to take positive action in three major areas.  

  • To establish active, long-term relationships with university engineering departments in the area of education (as many companies have now done in research), including membership of Advisory Boards, by providing Visiting Professors and Industrial Tutors and through a variety of other means including providing project topics and facilities and student placements.  Companies should also recognise the secondary benefit from such engagement, for example in the development of younger staff. 
  • To engage actively with the Government's STEM programme. 
  • To engage actively with the Institutions in the accreditation of qualifying degrees by releasing active members of staff to serve on the Accreditation Boards and Panels.

Davies highlights a scheme in Birmingham: “We run a scheme called RESPECT, through which companies not only support students through their degrees and provide summer training but, more importantly, are with us on undergraduate recruitment days to advise potential students and their parents of good job prospects in industry.”

Although this is only one example of industry working to promote the sector to potential engineers and their parents, it illustrates what can be achieved by working together.

Engineering is most definitely alive and well in the UK but as is highlighted in this article parents and teachers need to look beyond stereotypes, in addition industry and educational establishments have to market the profession as the rewarding and exciting career it is and need to get increasingly involved at school level where future engineers are likely to be inspired.

Royal Academy of Engineering

The Academy has promoted engineering in schools for over a decade through its Best Programme. This is a continuum of curriculum enrichment schemes in science, engineering and technology (SET) that engages with and inspires thousands of young people in schools, colleges, universities and beyond.

The Best Programme provides opportunities to explore and develop an enthusiasm for SET in schools and supplies vital information for students at key decision points during their education. Information is available to assist in educational and career choices, and university options. Later, it supports undergraduates and post-graduates with professional and personal development and provides relevant career information. 

Ever evolving, the Best Programme will continue to engage with increasing numbers and with a wider cross section of society. An expanded Best Programme will promote chartered and non-chartered careers equally, whilst working to encourage wider participation in the SET community:  breaking down barriers to access and providing more attractive training and learning opportunities. Over 50,000 students a year in over 1800 schools benefit from the Best Programme.

Other awareness campaigns for science and engineering are also being implemented by The Engineering and Technology Board, the Royal Society, and the Research Councils.

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