ENGINEERING EDUCATION AND TRAINING PART 2: FURTHER AND HIGHER EDUCATION

My colleague Andrew Livesey MA CEng MIMechE is an engineering lecturer and author. This is part 2 of 3 articles by him on his personal views about Engineering Education and Training – he takes three themes – engineering jobs, engineering education courses and engineering institutions.

In the last article we looked at engineering jobs, how they have changed very quickly and the absence of a clear career pathway. In this article we’ll look at some of the issues in education and highlight some of the reasons why we are not training enough engineers.

When it comes to engineering education and training there are a number of factors to consider, the course content, the education provider that is trying to deliver it, what outcomes are we trying to achieve. Let’s be more basic, what is it that we are trying to achieve? And how should we do it?

What does an engineer do?

This is one of the most mis-used job descriptions in the world.

The content of F/HE programmes is quite good in a generic sense; but do they fully serve the needs of either students or industry? Another question for development. Also, and without doubt from personal experience, students are not prepared in school for any sort of technical job, not just engineering; but any sort of technical or scientific role. Ignoring the arguments about academies and the funding models that just encourage a sausage factory approach to five GCSE passes. There are lots of interesting certificates and awards available; but they cost money to run – there are not the teachers or equipment to run them. A good gold standard qualification is A Level Physics; but it concentrates on the minutia and does not allow any creativity – in fact there’s not much creativity in the Art qualifications either. Let me quote a specific, a student of physics will lose marks for not having the correct number of digits after the decimal point, even if the rest of the answer is perfect. In these days of calculation done by algorithms on spreadsheets, this is of no consequence. What is needed is an engineer or scientist who understands the principles of the calculation and can estimate the order of the number – in other words what will happen, and are we talking about hundreds, or about millions.

The woman who came to fix my Sky box was referred to as an engineer – I’d describe her a Sky technician – she didn’t engineer my Sky box – she followed a procedure and replaced it.

What has happened in secondary education is that the subjects have been minimalised and the marking schemes have been simplified to the most infinitesimal level.  So, students are not prepared in schools to become individual self-learners. There is little, or no personal practical work or experimentation – often blamed on Health and Safety regulations. I’m talking about things like not being able to mark out a work-piece, or drill a hole. So, the F/HE tutors, and we have some great F/HE tutors, have to start at the basics. What really frightens me is that a GCSE mathematics pass is available without covering fractions – students don’t have concepts of numbers like an eighth, they can’t relate it to 0.125.

At this point it is worth discussing the socio-economic situation of many students, especially those in inner city areas. Many students do not have their own sleeping area and they are unlikely to get breakfast before leaving for college. Many colleges run breakfast clubs – as hungry students aren’t going to learn much. This lack of home space means that the students aren’t able to do any practical stuff at home – they don’t have anywhere to keep a bicycle, so no practical experience using any sort of tools. Interestingly in South Africa – a country that I love – they are starting to put allotments near to the high-rise homes so that those who want outside space have that opportunity. In China you will see families exercising in the public parks – of which there are many and free practical workshops in community buildings.

The Department for Education along with the Institute for Apprenticeships are developing the new T Level programmes – I’m a member of one of the panels and must say that this is a very fresh new approach. The T Levels are at Level 3; the DfE is also considering the levels each side – that is Level 2 and Levels 3 and 4. The new T Levels will be a really relevant qualification; but they need the support of Grade 1 colleges and employers interested in training.

The Gadsby Foundation have been looking at engineering training in Germany and Sweden, they came to the same conclusion that I did when I visited a number of training providers in France. The employers see it as a duty to help with the training of young people into their industry- its an attitude of the mind. Training is seen as an important responsibility by employers and teachers – something that must be done as well as possible.

Since the incorporation of further education colleges in 1993 it appears that many have concentrated on being businesses rather than providers of technical training for the local people and employers. An interesting observation from this is that college principals’ salaries have gone up through the roof and teachers’ salaries have gone down in real terms. Of course, the same differential applies to academies and universities. There is, by and large, no career structure in any of the education providers. There used to be clear criteria for progression from assistant lecturer to principal lecturer – this has now gone. Part of the criteria was institution membership level along with published papers, or other academic attainments. Many academics have shunned institution membership, saying why do I need this I have a PhD, I don’t need to pay the fee.

We used to have principals who were of high professional standing, engineers and scientists – now it’s all about MBA degrees and how much the coffee shop makes.

An engineering degree doesn’t make real engineers any more – most of the universities have thrown out the machine tools and closed the workshops. Engineering graduates are however often good at mathematics and can write an essay. This is a good skills match for the financial services sector – who pay more. About 30% of all engineering graduates do not go into engineering jobs, and of those who do, about another 30% leave within three years for a variety of reasons, often related to the job not meeting expectations.

So, we have very limited role models in colleges and universities, no practical work at any level of education. In China, I’ve worked there for a little while, the situation is the opposite – they like engineers and engineering, so do many other Asian peoples.

In the next article I’ll discuss institutions and how they could do better.

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