Article - Issue 27, June 2006

Education for Engineering Leadership

Professor Julia King CBE FREng

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Education for Engineering Leadership

'Professor Julia King CBE FREng

New research by Henley Management College for The Royal Academy of Engineering has revealed that over one third of engineering firms in the UK believe that engineering graduate shortages and skills deficiencies are costing them money, through delays in new product development and additional recruitment costs. Professor Julia King CBE FREng,who chaired the review,gives her views on the findings.

In the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004–2014, the Government painted a vision for the future of the UK: “… a key knowledge hub in the global economy… a world leader in turning knowledge into new products and services.”

Over the past few years much media coverage has fed negative perceptions of engineering in the UK. The rapid development of economies and education in India and China, off-shoring to lower cost locations, the demise of historic British engineering companies, the reduction in importance of manufacturing in the UK's economy are just a few areas where UK engineering has come under attack.

Add to that the difficulty of persuading children that studying maths and physics at school is worth it, and you wonder not only what sort of engineers we will need in the UK in the future, but also how we will find them.

Against this need to renew our ‘engineering leadership’ in a changing world, the Academy has launched its review of university engineering education: Educating Engineers for the 21st Century. The first phase of the review explores industry’s views. What changes are companies anticipating in their sectors and in their needs for graduates? How do they rate the current crop of engineering graduates? Are shortages of engineers affecting business? Almost 500 companies participated in the study, which was run for the Academy by Henley Management College. The results were published at the end of March 2006 with a commentary prepared by The Royal Academy of Engineering.

There are few surprises in industry’s responses. A consistent picture emerges across a wide range of companies large and small, from recent university spin-outs to household names. On the positive side, they expect to recruit an increasing proportion of graduate engineers in the future. But, over one third say that skill shortages today are delaying new product development and inhibiting business growth.

Two challenging messages emerge: industry will need more high quality engineers to lead innovation and change in a fast moving environment; and engineering degree courses need attention in order to deliver the right kind of graduates and to attract and maintain the motivation of students. As one senior industrialist in the survey commented,“…we expect more creativity, more innovation, more excellent technical skills…that will maintain the activities in the UK…compared to work in low cost countries.”

To address this I believe we must restore the balance between research and teaching in our leading universities. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) has,without doubt, driven major improvements in the quality and competitiveness of academic research in the UK. However, in many departments, teaching now feels like a secondclass activity.

Meanwhile, industry is demanding new courses, such as systems engineering, and more ‘real-life’practical experiences, using theory in open-ended problems. Students and recent graduates also identify such team and problem-based learning activities as critical to their interest and motivation. These approaches to learning are resource-intensive to implement and run, requiring a high level of commitment from the staff involved.

It is essential to recognise the real cost of educating innovative and creative engineers – the full economic costs for teaching whether through fees or other mechanisms. It is also essential to raise the status of the best university teaching. We may need new types of appointment – ‘teaching Fellows’ and educational technologists – with equivalent career paths and reward structures to those of their ‘conventional’ academic colleagues.

The UK is a world-leader in industry-university research partnerships. Where are the equivalent relationships for university education? The Academy’s Visiting Professors scheme – in Design, Sustainable Development, and Integrated Systems Engineering – is excellent but, with around 250 engineering departments, after 16 years we still haven’t reached a quota of one Visiting Professor per department.

Projects, vacation placements, lectures from industrial visitors, engagement with syllabus development, feedback on the quality of graduates interviewed and appointed: if strengthening these interactions improves the graduate ‘product’ the investment for both companies and universities is worthwhile.

Implicit so far is an assumption that many engineering tasks – important but less innovative or risky – will take place overseas. However, there are significant areas of engineering where off shoring won’t be feasible; building inspectors for the London Olympics, and engineers to inspect and assess the integrity of our nuclear plant, for example. Service and support engineering, construction, development and support of infrastructure such as power, transport, communications, water and so on will continue to need ‘local’ engineering.

A key part of the industryuniversity education dialogue needs to address the types of engineer we need for the future in the UK – leaders, innovators and ‘local’ engineers – and how to educate them. It must also consider whether we are educating engineers we don’t need.

The vision with which I started is of engineering leadership, and of the UK as a hub for creative, innovative engineering. Sir George Cox argues that we are good at this: “…our creative capabilities – one of the UK’s undoubted strengths” (Cox Review of Creativity in Business: Building on the UK’s Strengths, November 2005). But we can’t stand still – the university education of engineers is a key area for action.

In the next phase of the Academy study,we will ask universities to respond to the needs and priorities expressed by industry; identifying and sharing current good practice, exploring opportunities and inhibitors in implementing new teaching and learning approaches such as CDIO (Conceiving – Designing – Implementing – Operating). If you are interested in participating in any aspect of the study please do get in touch.

Further information:

The full report, prepared by Henley Management College for The Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Academy’s commentary on the report, can be downloaded from

Biography – Professor Julia King CBE FREng

Having started her career as an academic at Cambridge, Julia spent eight years at Rolls-Royce plc where she held a number of senior appointments. In 2004 she returned to academia as Principal of the Engineering Faculty at Imperial College London. She currently chairs the Defence Science Advisory Council, is a member of the DTI Technology Strategy Board,a non-executive director of ETB and a Council memberand Honorary Secretary for Education and Training at The Royal Academy of Engineering.

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