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Learning Curve: Are engineering degrees fit for purpose?

Joseph Flaig

Students are often not taught in enough depth, according to the IMechE's Christian Young (Credit: Jarred Briggs)
Students are often not taught in enough depth, according to the IMechE's Christian Young (Credit: Jarred Briggs)

Education is the answer to so many problems facing engineering, from the skills gap to the diversity crisis. New ways of learning could secure a brighter future – but, as this series of five articles shows, the transition won’t be easy.

First, we look at some issues with modern engineering degrees – and some potential solutions. 

University degrees are the starting point for countless rewarding engineering careers. They provide a constant flow of graduates into the world of work, eager to make a living in the diverse sectors that form the industry. 

Their current state is far from perfect, however, and businesses looking to hire new talent can be disappointed with what they find. According to a 2014 survey by the Confederation of British Industry, a shortage of STEM graduates was the most significant barrier to recruitment for 30% of employers. But the biggest issue, picked by 45%, was ‘lack of appropriate attitude and aptitudes for working life’. Second was a lack of general workplace experience (39%) and third was the quality of graduates (35%).

Lack of depth

Students are often not taught in sufficient depth, says Christian Young, vice-chair of the IMechE education and skills strategy board – an issue for companies that want to throw them in at the deep end.  

“University degrees are very well set up for graduates who are going into big companies, blue-chip companies with graduate schemes, where the idea is that they will do two years, maybe three years, working around the company in different fields, figuring out what fits before they specialise… they tend to give students a really broad level of understanding of all the different topics and fields within engineering,” he says. 

Problems arise for small and medium-sized firms looking for graduates with high-level skills in specific areas. University leavers often need time to develop relevant expertise, something that smaller firms can afford less easily. 

The issue comes down to the way degrees are set up, says Young. Universities build them from a wide set of modules, and specialised degrees might only have a few specific modules over five years. “I’m not sure if this is the fault of universities entirely,” he says. “The problem is they’ve got to create a course that’s financially viable. There have got to be enough students to run it, which is why the module system works in that way.”

Measuring up

With an economic imperative underpinning the ‘breadth not depth’ approach it is difficult to come up with a quick fix, but more collaboration between specialised companies and academic institutions could be very useful. At the University of Huddersfield, for example, where Young is manager of the Future Metrology Hub, there are close links with BorgWarner and Cummins Turbocharging Technologies, which both have local bases. 

While the skills gap might be the most pressing issue for employers, it is not the only one. Judging applicants by their final mark is becoming increasingly difficult thanks to grade inflation, whereby more students are receiving top marks. 

Between 2010-11 and 2020-21 the percentage of firsts awarded nationally more than doubled from 15.7% to 37.9%, according to the Office for Students. In engineering, the number of firsts increased from 3,620 in 2007-08 to 8,925 in 2017-18, according to the Engineering Professors’ Council, going from 22.3% to 36.9% of classifications.

The reasons behind the increase vary, from the pessimistic – universities reacting to internal and external pressure to boost marks – to the optimistic – the standard of teaching and students improving. It causes challenges for employers either way. 

“It’s becoming more difficult for employers to differentiate between the quality of graduates,” says Young. “When everyone’s coming out with the same calibre of degree, then you can’t use that as a measure of the students’ ability.”

Make sure to check the Professional Engineering homepage throughout the week for more articles examining the challenges – and opportunities – in engineering education.


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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