Article - Issue 22, March 2005

Politics of Engineering

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We invited representatives from the three largest political parties to tell Ingenia readers why engineering is important to them. Here are their responses – in alphabetical order of the parties of course!

Stephen O’Brien MP
Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Industry

British engineers may be excused for feeling a little hard done by. Whilst there is public recognition of the contribution that technological innovation and development makes towards improving living standards and advancing British competitiveness, there does not seem to be a corresponding public acknowledgement of the professionals who drive that innovation and, equally important, develop existing engineered products and processes.

It seems to be a uniquely British paradox. On the continent, it is well known that the engineering profession enjoys greater prestige and public acknowledgment than in the UK. There are of course historical reasons for this, but it is significant that in countries such as France or Germany the professional title of engineer is protected by law. A Conservative Government will therefore consult on how best to protect the use of the term ‘engineer’ for chartered engineers only, thereby ensuring that it is a title reserved for graduates with a Master’s Degree in Engineering. This distinction is essential to restoring the reputation of the profession and guaranteeing a protection that other professionals such as doctors, lawyers and architects take for granted.

It is concerning that university courses now find the allure of engineering to be so low that, in some cases, they have even renamed their engineering courses in the hope that engineering by another name may be more attractive to students. The Royal Academy of Engineering’s Best Programme is to be praised for its vital outreach work in going into schools and enthusing young people – and indeed their teachers – about the opportunities a career in engineering brings. However, much more needs to be done to show pupils that high demands on qualified engineers pay off in fascinating projects and a rewarding career.

Difficult computer programming results in dramatic computer-generated media. Engineers use the laws of physics to build defence missiles, space rockets, and safer cars. Biotechnology creates the life support machines that make the difference between life and death in emergency.

There are engineers who say that ‘scientists spend money, engineers create it’. Perhaps there is some truth in that. What is certain is that engineering is not just a subset of science. To demonstrate the distinction but also the equality between these fields, a Conservative Government will appoint a distinguished engineer to serve as Chief Engineering Advisor to Her Majesty’s Government, just as Sir David King currently serves as Chief Scientific Advisor to HM Government. This new appointment will be coupled with a redoubled commitment to manufacturing (in its widest meaning) which has been so drastically eroded over the past five years.

The Conservatives will relentlessly take action to raise the image and profile of engineering, whether in the form of Prime Ministerial speeches or Ministers attending important engineering events. I am proud that within my shadow frontbench team I can call on the expertise of the Shadow Minister for Industry and Technology, Michael Fabricant MP, who is a Chartered Engineer and Fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Finally, not least because of my own background as a former FTSE 100 manufacturing industrialist, I am keenly aware of the significance of arresting the decline, in reputation and in student uptake, of engineering to our economy, and of our proud history as the nation of Michael Faraday and George Stephenson.

Logo of the Labour partyMartin O’Neill MP
Labour Party, Chair of the House of Commons Trade and Industry Committee

The UK has grown used to an economy with steady growth, low inflation and high employment. In the past, this would have been associated with a successful manufacturing industry, largely due to our engineering capability. Since then, insufficient capital investment and training facilities, a drop in school-leavers going into apprenticeships, and the export of jobs rather than goods to the markets abroad, have all contributed to manufacturing productivity levels which compare unfavourably with continental manufacturers and the emerging Asian economies.

Nonetheless, we have been remarkably successful in securing the bulk of inward investment into Europe from North America and Asia. A flexible labour market, a liberalised economy and an increasingly high level of management competence have all helped to make the UK the most attractive major location in which to do business.

At long last we have grasped the training nettle. Based on the work led by Sir John Cassells, we have seen the establishment of the Modern Apprenticeship Scheme. From last September, all 16- and 17-year-olds with five or more GCSEs can join the scheme, as can those up to 25 who missed the chance the first time around. Those lacking the basic qualifications can also work towards to the required level.

In 2003–4 the cost in England was around £700 million, with another £165 million being allocated for entry into employment for the 220,000 who joined the schemes. Companies like British Gas, with their 7000 engineers, know only too well that they cannot exist by recruiting time-served personnel, and therefore have committed themselves to recruiting half of their additional engineering requirements from their apprenticeship scheme over the next five years. It is not just the big employers either – more and more small companies recognise the availability of good training programmes to bring their staff up to standard.

The expansion of the higher and further education sector has placed pressure on a number of technology and engineering departments. Students are all too often seduced by superficially attractive social science courses, but industry and academia are fighting back. More companies now realise that they must get into schools far earlier to emphasise the excitement and opportunities of engineering.

It is hard work, but combined with the increased priority being given to technology transfer within universities, the link between research and entrepreneurialism is becoming better understood. Engineering’s significance as a knowledge-based industry, far removed from the noisy, dirty world of metal-bashing, makes it more and more attractive to our young people.

It would be wrong to assume that years of neglect can be repaired in such a short time, but a start is being made. No longer does the Government believe that the UK’s future economic strength can depend on financial services, tourism and the like, important as they are. Our prosperity will rely on the inventiveness of our engineers and the businesses they serve. Designers, advisers and researchers – all will be required to travel the globe, while in Britain our home-grown and foreign-owned plants will produce many of the high added value goods we and the rest of the world will require.

Britain will never be the workshop of the world again, but if we continue to train and invest in our people, we will certainly be one of the drivers of the new manufacturing economy.

Logo of the Liberal DemocratsMalcolm Bruce MP
Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry

The Liberal Democrats consider a thriving and innovative engineering sector to be central to the UK’s future prosperity and competitiveness. The sector does however face significant challenges, not least from student disinterest, fewer engineering university courses and a shift from in-house company training.

The Liberal Democrat priorities for the sector are two-fold: to ensure engineering remains a viable and attractive career option to the next generation, and to promote the commercial and blue skies research which will safeguard innovation.

The Liberal Democrats propose the abolition of the DTI. As the British economy has evolved this department has failed to adapt. Its interventionist approach and massive bureaucracy holds back development rather than assisting it. In abolishing the department we are not getting rid of every one of its functions. We recognise that the department has a number of useful roles and will protect these.

So for instance the DTI’s energy responsibilities will be transferred to a new Department of Environment, Energy and Transport. Most importantly the DTI’s science budget will be combined with the Department for Education’s science resources and routed through a new Department of Education and Science. Our policy is designed to ensure the Government retains a role in the promotion of British business but restricts it from interference in areas where the private sector operates more efficiently. This extends to research and development. Government can and should contribute to blue skies research but if it edges into more commercial areas it risks displacing private sector funding. Taxpayers’ money is better spent in those areas of research which are conventionally ignored by private sector investment.

I support increasing the proportion of GDP we spend on R&D, but doing so over a short period of time (like the Government has proposed) is not the right approach. It risks vital resources being misdirected and precludes refinement based on monitoring. To maintain our place in the emerging global market the UK should be concentrating on technologies and services which depend on a highly skilled workforce and manufacturing techniques that no other country can supply. Our emerging expertise in the field of renewable energy technology is an example.

To deliver this we should promote non-commercial R&D and scientific training and education to raise standards in partnership with engineering and science companies. It also means protecting and promoting the UK’s engineering base to ensure future generations have the requisite skills.

This cannot be guaranteed because of the current Government’s higher education policy. Universities are withdrawing resources from the more expensive laboratory based and engineering subjects. Despite a high salaried future in engineering, the fear of debt is increasingly discouraging students from such subjects.

The Liberal Democrats would abolish tuition fees. Funding universities through progressive taxation is the only way to guarantee a allocation of resources to engineering courses. We will also reform education for children over the age of 14 so that they can mix academic and vocational learning, including apprenticeships. In this way we can equip school-leavers with the kind of skills employers want.

Britain has developed world-class industries, but these will be fatally undermined if investment does not reach their workforces – or the workforce of the future.

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