An introduction to the 'real world'


Carbon weekWhen he signed up to be a Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor in sustainability at Aston University, Keith Clarke CBE HonFREng decided to think big. He organised Carbon Week, a series of lectures, events and student projects to engage all of the university’s second-year students in the challenges represented by climate change and to alert them to the ‘phenomenal entrepreneurial opportunity’ that it offers to young engineers © Aston University

Graduates can emerge from university with little face-to-face contact with engineers who have worked in industry. To counter this shortcoming, leading engineers are going back to university as Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professors to give undergraduates a frontline view of engineering. Science journalist Michael Kenward OBE talks to some of the Visiting Professors about their experiences of the scheme.

Visiting ProfessorIt was something of a job share for Sam Beale, Pieter Knook and Rick Mitchell (L–R) when they became Visiting Professors in the engineering department at Cambridge University. The trio brought experience from different industries to their roles, including small start-up businesses and major engineering companies in aerospace and electronics. One result of their work is a new course on ‘The Engineer in Business’, which Mitchell says will give students insights into how to get things done © Cambridge University Department of Engineering

It was carbon awareness overdrive at Aston University in November 2015. Keith Clarke CBE HonFREng, Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor in sustainability, had invited all second-year students to immerse themselves in Carbon Week – a series of lectures, masterclasses and other events. He wanted to “bring climate change awareness and low-carbon design thinking” to all of Aston’s students. With more than 1,500 students participating in the week’s first-day conference, the event made waves on social media.

Clarke's plan was in line with the broader aims of the Academy’s industry-into-academia initiative, which sets out to ‘utilise the experience of the Visiting Professors to enhance student learning as well as the employability and skills of UK engineering graduates’. When it came to Carbon Week, Aston saw it as a way of exposing students to what could be an important career opportunity, and the students themselves found it to be a valuable experience. As one student put it: “[It was] ultimately beneficial and puts us ahead of the game on something that may sooner or later become a global crisis.”


The Academy’s Visiting Professors (VP) scheme exposes students to the real-world experiences of senior engineers in industry. Without this sort of interaction, students may only encounter academics in their undergraduate learning. VPs pass on their experiences in many ways. An informal introduction to the scheme, The rough guide to being an Academy Visiting Professor or Visiting Teaching Fellow, lists some of the things that VPs get up to, including “developing and delivering new lectures or even whole modules, preparing material (such as case studies) for others to deliver, tutoring or mentoring students, running activities such as an industrial advisory board or industrial visits, acting as an external judge for Dragon’s Den-type activities, advising on curriculum development, proposing and/or supervising undergraduate projects and many more”.

Rick MitchellDuring his time as a Visiting Professor at Cambridge University, Rick Mitchell’s role involved helping a student group to design a robot, as well coaching students to make presentations © Cambridge University Department of Engineering

Only a superhuman VP could do everything on this list; after all, their academic work goes on in the day or so a month that they take out from their jobs in industry over the three years of their appointment. However, many VPs cram in plenty of activities. For example, Rick Mitchell, VP in innovation, spent time at Cambridge University where, as he puts it, he did “quite a bit of teaching”, alongside coaching sessions on how to make presentations to future employers and stakeholders, especially companies, and judging at student entrepreneurship competitions: “We helped a lot with a student group project involving designing a robot.” Embedding VPs into the department helps them feel interested in the relationship they have formed and encourages them to strengthen it once their time as a VP has finished. Sustaining these relationships between industry and academia is one of the major aims of the scheme.

Mitchell’s experience also showed that VPs can influence what universities teach. “We also researched and proposed a new compulsory module in the second year of the main course, called ‘The Engineer in Business’.” This follows on from Cambridge’s first-year course, ‘The Engineer in Society’. The new course, planned to start in 2017, will “give students some insights into how to get things done”, says Mitchell. “Innovation is not just invention but also the selection of what to do; justifying and persuading; project management; understanding and working with other functions; and turning an idea into reality.” Mitchell brought to this course experiences from a career that has taken in jobs such as Group Technical and Quality Director at Domino Printing Sciences and senior roles in different parts of Philips Electronics.

Keith ClarkeKeith Clarke’s career experience with Atkins, as Director of Sustainability and former Chief Executive, meant that he was able to give students at Aston University insight into what businesses really want from new graduates © Aston University

Mitchell’s professorship may have had more impact than some because it was organised as a jobshare. “The unusual thing about my experience was that there were three of us sharing the position,” he says. His partners as VPs were Pieter Knook and Sam Beale. “This was actually very successful,” says Mitchell. Knook brought experience from various roles in technology start-ups, while Beale had been Head of Technology Strategy at Rolls-Royce Group.

Like the Cambridge trio, most VPs tend to concentrate on their own expertise, the university’s needs and where they can have an impact. For example, one VP dedicated their time to working on one of the notoriously complicated challenges that face universities: how do they find common ground with or even find SMEs?


The Academy appoints a new cohort of VPs each year, and since the scheme started in 1989, more than 200 VPs from around 50 companies have worked in 60 universities across the UK. The current roster has nearly 60 VPs from over 40 companies working in 33 different universities. Companies and organisations that have supported the scheme include Arup, Rolls-Royce, Ford, IBM, QinetiQ, Scott Wilson, and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). Feedback from Liverpool John Moores University, which hosted Ron Bell from Engineering Safety Consultants Ltd, suggests that the experience on offer is very much welcomed: “More than 100 students have benefited from the VP’s contribution to improving three core modules. Many students said that it was very useful to have more industrial flavour in their engineering degree studies.”

In Clarke’s case, his time at Aston came after a career with Atkins, which needs to recruit engineers who can ‘think carbon’. He organised Carbon Week partly to alert Aston’s students to the problems that they will face owing to climate change, but to also alert them to the “phenomenal entrepreneurial opportunity” that it offers to young engineers. Aston’s Vice Chancellor Julia King DBE FREng, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, explains that students take his message seriously because of his background: “He is very persuasive because he comes from the world of business – he can say that business really needs this, this is what business really wants its new graduates to know about, and be able to think about in the context of their jobs and the company’s business.”

Dorte Rich JorgensenDr Dorte Rich Jørgensen, a sustainability consultant engineer with Atkins, underlined the value of industrial contacts during her time as a Visiting Professor in innovation in the School of the Built Environment at Heriot-Watt University. As well as helping to shape the university’s strategic development plan, along with courses for the architectural engineering department, she was a speaker at the university’s annual Industry Day © Dr Dorte Rich Jørgensen

Hugh Varilly also wanted to inject entrepreneurial thinking into his time as a VP in innovation at University College London (UCL). Varilly brings a lifetime’s experience in the computer sector, mostly with IBM where he was involved in implementing major IT programmes, not to mention fixing them when they went wrong. Once again, few career academics can bring this sort of experience to their teaching. It isn’t even the sort of thing that students can read about in textbooks.

As a VP, Varilly says: “I wanted to help bring practical experience from industry into the undergraduate teaching at UCL, and give something back.” It turns out that many of the undergraduates that he teaches do have some industry background. As he says, they have done internships or have part-time jobs to help pay their way through university. “What they sometimes lack,” he adds, “is a deep understanding of heavy duty IT or business processes, as their internships, while very useful, tend to operate somewhat at a surface level.”

Like Varilly and Clarke, Dr Dorte Rich Jørgensen had a clear idea of the message she wanted to get across when she became a VP in innovation at the School of the Built Environment at Heriot-Watt University. Again, she sees climate change as something that students need to think about. “I want to do my bit to ensure that global warming is addressed. I want to influence academia and industry to enable future and current professionals to have the skills and behaviours to be able to do that.” So when Heriot Watt called with the idea of becoming a VP, working in architectural engineering and civil engineering, Dr Jørgensen jumped at the opportunity.

Dr Jørgensen is a sustainability consultant engineer with Atkins. She describes her job as being to ensure “that sustainability is embedded within infrastructure and built environment projects, and within our business”. One of her tasks as an engineer was as sustainability manager for the Atkins infrastructure design team on the Olympic Park site in East London. It is this experience of making things happen that appeals to students. “The feedback from the students was usually that they were very inspired by what we have made possible in the ‘real world’.”


The overarching goal of VPs may be to engage with undergraduates, but their work rarely stops there. For example, in 2013, Dr Jørgensen was the industry catalyst when Heriot-Watt University was setting up the Royal Academy of Engineering Centre for Excellence in Sustainable Building Design, a venture that brought together Heriot-Watt, UCL, Sheffield and Loughborough universities.

Visiting ProfessorMany universities encourage students to spend time with and learn from professors with engineering experience inbusiness to increase their employability. To reinforce this, Aston University also invited employers to send staff to thefirst day of Carbon Week © Aston University

The university also credits Dr Jørgensen with helping to shape its strategic development plan, as well as courses for the architectural engineering department. Professor Gareth Pender, Head of the School of the Built Environment at Heriot-Watt University, summed up the wider interaction when he said: “The synergy created between Dr Jørgensen and members of our academic staff has led to a number of exciting initiatives in research and teaching that will benefit the school and the wider university.” He described the visiting professorship as “easily the most productive visiting professorship in our school to date”.

While students and universities are clearly an important part of the relationship with the VPs, as Dr Jørgensen found when she was a speaker at the university’s annual Industry Day, there can also be business opportunities. “Creating synergies between industry and academia can lead to business opportunities,” she says. “Speaking at events such as Heriot-Watt’s Industry Day is a great way of showcasing what we do and how we do it.”

Dr Jørgensen’s work in promoting collaboration between industry and academia also resulted in a memorandum of understanding between Heriot-Watt and Atkins in high-speed rail. This led to the creation of a new centre at the university that hopes to “push rail track research beyond high speed and towards ultra-high speed”.


An important reason why universities welcome VPs is that they can enhance students’ career prospects. As much as universities appreciate the opportunity to expose students to professors with engineering experience in business, it can also help them to get jobs when they graduate. Aston University reinforced this message in its pitch to students, and it also invited a number of employers to send staff to the first day of Carbon Week.

Dr Jørgensen also ensured that her students were prepared for the workplace. “I always aimed to [point] them in the direction [of] industry where they would have the best fit for their skills, applying my experience so far and giving pointers to support structures for them.” She still maintains links with the university and with her students. “I am so proud every time I watch a Heriot-Watt student succeed!” she says. Another important aspect of her time as a VP was the opportunity to show that women can also make it to senior levels in engineering. “I celebrate how the women at Heriot-Watt reach the top of academia. We have balanced gender representation.”

Another way in which students benefit from the presence of VPs is in student placements. One survey of the scheme found that the number of students applying for internships went up at the companies where VPs worked.

Peter Goodhew FREng, who chairs the Royal Academy of Engineering’s VP steering group, says that a common thread among VPs is their enthusiasm for working with both students and young staff who lack industrial experience. His favourite anecdote is of a class of students who were asked to come up with a definition of what engineers do. The best answer was “engineers design and make stuff”. As he puts it, “I don’t think anyone could do better using only five words. The VP scheme helps to explain why and how engineers design and make stuff.”

The benefits from the programme do not flow in one direction. For example, companies say that VPs are an important way of letting students know who they are and what they do. In other words, the scheme can help with recruitment in what is an increasingly competitive market for engineering graduates.

Clarke’s activities at Aston highlight another contribution that VPs can make at a receptive university. As Baroness Brown puts it: “Because he comes from outside he doesn’t accept that things can’t be done for university administrative reasons, and he challenges us all the time to move more quickly and be more responsive – a very healthy and positive challenge. We sometimes need to be encouraged to break our own rules inside universities!”


Michael Kenward OBE has been a freelance writer since 1990 and is a member of the Ingenia Editorial Board. He is Editor-at-Large of Science|Business.