Monday, 8 November 2010

The greatest threat to engineering in the UK?

Watching question time and seeing people’s comments on Twitter last week showed what an emotive topic raising the limit of student fees is.  Is this the greatest single threat to the growth of science and engineering industries that the UK and England in particular currently faces? 

I have volunteered as a Science and Engineering Ambassador for over 6 years for a number of organisations including ICE, STEMNET and WISE and spoken to students from all sorts of schools. Slowly efforts like these by the growing number of Ambassadors are getting the message across that science and maths related subjects actually open doors for people’s careers.  There’s no denying that the world and the country needs to encourage young people to study science and engineering to further develop, this is recognized by politicians worldwide including Barak Obama who said in his book The Audacity of Hope “I wish the country had fewer lawyers and more engineers.” 

To become a Chartered Civil Engineer as I am, taking the route that I did, requires sound A-levels in maths and physics and a Masters degree from an accredited course and University (there are of course other routes which you can find out more about at this link).  These tend to be 4 year degrees which are not cheap to run.  One of the things that so attracted me to study engineering was the variety of subjects covered and the ways in which they are taught.  There’s materials theory, structural analysis, design in different materials along with law, accounting, management and a number of research and laboratory modules that add up to usually over 20 hours of lectures a week, with all the self study time that is expected on top of that.  A soft degree this isn’t.  It may be an option for some Arts degrees to condense them into two years by increasing lecture time but I don’t think that will be possible with Engineering degrees.

Engineering is a good career. There are a wealth of opportunities within the industry and other high-flying businesses are always attracted to Engineering graduates who have good project management, lateral thinking and analytical skills.  It is an immensely satisfying job, I don’t think there are many comparable jobs where you can walk past something that will be there for generations and say “I designed that” or “I made that work”. 

Sadly it is not the best paid of graduate jobs.  It is definitely not the worst but repaying 4 years of student fees is going to take a long time. If you count tuition fees at an estimate of £6k a year and rent and other costs at a very conservative £2.5k a year each graduate will leave university with a £34k debt…not an attractive proposition. I don’t understand the proposed variable interest rates linked to individuals salary, why should ambition be penalized over and above what will be paid in income tax?  All I hope is that there is a response from the industry to increase the number of scholarships for engineering students and cap the fees at a manageable level for vocational degrees who’s graduates are desperately needed for the future of engineering and technology in this country.


  1. Hi Leonie, this is really interesting to me, as a mother of a son who might go into engineering. In some ways the financial situation makes degrees like engineering all the more attractive because they lead to a secure profession and career, unlike some more open-ended options...

    Or are they so secure? Do most of your engineer colleagues have jobs? How prevalent are redundancies in these trouble times?

  2. Hi Leonie,

    I completely agree with you - I really hope that the number of scholarships increases with the fee increase. I think it would be a brilliant way for the industry to entice more young people into engineering & related careers. I do worry though that in these tight economic times that sponsoring students will be the last thing on most corporate minds...


  3. Thanks for your comments and reading the blog.
    R.wilson - there have been a lot of redundancies over the last couple of years but there is definitely a feeling of optimism within the industry now. The recession has forced companies to find efficiency savings and diversify. I firmly believe there will always be a need for good engineers. I also believe that an engineering training, whether dipolma, university or professional training only opens doors, you learn and have to be resourceful, analytical, imaginative, innovative and keen to learn - all very useful skills in all sorts of industries. I hope this helps!