Is our engineering heritage on the wane in British Universities?

26 November 2009

With British universities oversubscribed and operating at capacity one would have thought that our nation is producing a talented new generation. Talented, maybe, but sadly not interested in science or engineering, writes Martyn Day

The history of British engineering and invention is something we can all look upon with great pride, from The Rocket steam train to the Harrier Jump Jet; Isambard Kingdom Brunel to James Dyson, let it not be said that we don’t have good ideas. However while we created the industrial revolution we have been unable to stay ahead of other countries, with UK engineering in long term decline for the last 50 years.

This rich heritage is rarely taught in schools and engineering is not particularly promoted or associated with a positive image. The net result is a generation of wannabe celebrity chefs, X-Factor warblers and ‘business studies’ apprentice-style sales fodder. A friend of mine who works at a well-known university told me that the business studies degree intake is so large they can’t all fit in the lecture hall, and that’s including using the steps as seats. Meanwhile they don’t know if they have enough heads to run their engineering courses.

Current statistics tell of a very sad state of affairs. For instance, the number of electrical engineering students enrolling in universities has continued to fall year on year, with a 45 per cent decline in numbers of engineering students between 2001 and 2008. And it gets worse, when you consider that out of those graduates, around 60% do not subsequently pursue a career in engineering. To broaden the science issue further, there are more painful stats that include the closure of over 30% of university physics departments and 10% of chemistry departments.

This decline in the popularity of engineering and science comes at a time when there has been a considerable increase in overall student numbers over the past ten years thanks to Mr. Blair’s fascination with up-skilling the nation’s qualifications by dumbing down the exam system. 

Industry and engineering company leaders have warned that this trend is already having a bearing on the UK’s ability to compete in the global engineering and manufacturing marketplace. While many will lament the loss of much of our manufacturing capacity to China and India, we are also in competition and losing to rising eastern European firms. 

Napoleon once called us a nation of shopkeepers, I’d hate for this business studies generation to ultimately prove him right

Now the goose that laid the golden egg, the financial services industry has soiled the basket that most of our eggs were in. Selling debt is no longer in fashion, we now have to create wealth by making stuff and designing products, if not physically making them. For that we need engineers harnessing the latest design technology. We can’t have another growth bubble funded on indebtedness and self-cert mortgages.

Fortunately we still have a solid base to work from and world-renowned expertise in many key engineering areas and a huge opportunity to expand into emerging markets such as green power. Although here, the current government’s wind power policy relies on the long lead-times of precision bearings that are nearly all made in Germany.

We need clear support for all design and manufacturing industries, especially as the UK looks to be the last economy to emerge from the global recession. Napoleon once called us a nation of shopkeepers, I’d hate for this business studies generation to ultimately prove him right.

Martyn Day is Consulting Editor of DEVELOP3D. He wonders what happened to all the inspirational science teachers he had when he was at school - please tell. 
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Comments on this article:

Dear Martyn, I found your article very interesting and relevant to our current position. I am a design and technology teacher in an 11 - 18 high school. We are a successful department with a proud history of successful students who have gone on to become designers, engineers and craftspeople. In your article you omitted to mention the sector I work in. However, it may be in secondary education that the greatest opportunity to reverse the trend of falling university applications in engineering and science exists. A good starting point would be to recognise the relevance of my subject and others, not just the traditional maths and science focus. In my school more children are entered for and pass technology (with a grade C or above) related subjects at G.C.S.E. level than either maths or English which are compulsory while design and technology is not. You refer to the proud history of British engineering and state it is rarely taught in schools but this is not strictly the case. I was a member of the authoring team for 'design and technology in the National Curriculum for Wales' and we were careful to ensure the inclusion of an awareness of our proud heritage as well as focusing on our future as a technological society. As you can see in the extracts below it is required that schools in England and Wales provide opportunities for all children at Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) to learn about these important aspects. I have included the web links to the relevant documents for England and Wales. If you would like to discuss this further please feel free to contact me. In design and technology pupils combine practical and technological skills with creative thinking to design and make products and systems that meet human needs. They learn to use current technologies and consider the impact of future technological developments. They learn to think creatively and intervene to improve the quality of life, solving problems as individuals and members of a team. ‘They combine practical and intellectual skills with an understanding of aesthetic, technical, cultural, health, social, emotional, economic, industrial and environmental issues. As they do so, they evaluate present and past design and technology, and its uses and effects. Through design and technology pupils develop confidence in using practical skills and become discriminating users of products. They apply their creative thinking and learn to innovate.’ During the key stage pupils should be offered the following opportunities; ‘Designers and makers: These include electronic, mechanical and structural engineers, product designers, fashion designers, chefs, architects and others. ‘ Pupils combine practical and technological skills with creative thinking to design and make products and systems that meet human needs At Key Stage 3, learners should be given opportunities; They should be made aware of human achievements and the big ideas that have shaped the world. They should be encouraged to be enterprising and innovative in their designing and making, while having regard for sustainability and environmental issues in the twenty-first century. Pupils should be given opportunities to develop their design and technology capability through: ‘reflecting on the work of designers, inventors, architects and chefs, including those from Wales’

Posted by Rhys Evans on Wednesday 06 2010 at 06:29 PM

The above commentator's subject is so all embracing, wide ranging and covers almost everything you can conceivably think of that affects design and science, that in the few hours a week that the kids get to do this subject, they learn almost nothing of any value. My daughters all started Design and technology and carved a piece of wood and were given a battery operated clock to stick on it then colour in the face of the clock. Another time they were all given free electic motors, propellors and batteries. Us dads had to cut up plastic containers and make boats out of it all. The kids learnt practically nothing and never seem to be interested or tested on what they should know. The classes are chaotic and the only thing that is rammed into the kids, is the all important environmental impact and sustainability of it all. If we had all this 'secondry' rubbish to deal with centuries ago, we would never have even invented the steam engine, as it would have been too polluting and dangerous! We need to bear in mind now, that our country is more or less governed by or at least guided by the mass Media. It can make or break a government and decides what we should be thinking about and tells us what we should be doing and what is important. Kids learn far more from the TV than they do in school and they learn that to get on you have to win X-Factor, or become a high class prostitute, or become a footballer or popstar etc. Nothing else is important. Engineering and product design, where you have to think very carefully and deeply about things, is so difficult and uncool, that we have to leave it up to the Asian countries. It is highly respected there and taught well and the all important Mathematics that goes with it, is also taught well. Over here, even the science degrees are well and truly dumbed down so that the graduates are almost useless. I met a mechanical engineering graduate recently, who did not know how to convert centimetres into millimetres, never mind centimetres into inches! Things are looking extremely bleak for us, thanks largely to the mass media brainwashing.

Posted by James Bradley on Saturday 13 2010 at 02:53 AM

You write so honeslty about this. Thanks for sharing!

Posted by Armena on Friday 07 2012 at 04:22 AM

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