Engineering and higher education in London
Report by a Working Group of Deans of Engineering chaired by Professor David Rhind
Executive summary and recommendations
2 What is Engineering?
3 The context
4 University-level Engineering education in the capital
5 Drivers for change: real or imagined?
6 Some major issues
7 The way ahead
8 Reference material
Executive summary and recommendations
Engineering in London's universities is simultaneously booming and in crisis. Those branches of Engineering focused on new technologies like telecommunications are struggling to cope with student demand. Yet more traditional fields like Civil Engineering are suffering a dearth of good applications from students. At the same time, boundaries between hitherto different subjects are now much less clear-cut, and student interests are not constrained to what universities or professional bodies prescribe. These developments have called into question the very nature of what is considered Engineering - some Engineers, for example, regard most of computing as simply a form of Engineering!
Little of all this pertains solely to London: for example, traditional Engineering education elsewhere in Britain, Europe and many other parts of the world is facing similar challenges. But this report seeks to tackle the 'down side' student demand problem within a metropolitan context. Its recommendations play to the particular strengths of London as a venue for study of a demanding discipline. Much has already been done to match supply with student demand: various under-utilised facilities have been closed in London during the last five years and many universities have mutated their course offerings. The group producing this report met to discuss what further steps might usefully be taken on matters within our scope to influence.
Our research and meetings showed that London's universities provide a huge range of education in Engineering. Indeed, the collective strength and span of the Engineering departments and Schools in the capital - as in much else - are probably unmatched across Europe. London's Engineering has many strengths deriving from its links with industry, both local and global, its world class research and much else. It takes in a high proportion of students from ethnic minorities and from overseas - meeting two key government policies. Its overall record at widening access to students from non-traditional academic backgrounds is comparable to that of other professional subjects. But it also has weaknesses. A key weakness is the very complexity of the many different academic units involved and the historical lack of inter-working, which render our advantages less obvious to employers and students than should be the case. Another weakness - but one commonplace nationally - is the low proportion of female entrants to our courses.
This study has sought to define the current situation and the overall trends, examined the manifestation of these in each of the 12 universities concerned (see Annex 2), reviewed the drivers for these trends, and set out to summarise London's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and the threats to our future success. These are summarised in this report, together with what can be done collaboratively to ameliorate these problems - whether bi- or multi-laterally. Much of the responsibility for action to enhance the situation is in the hands of individual vice-chancellors since they lead organisations with considerable (if variable) amounts of autonomy. We conclude that there are benefits to them in acting collaboratively in certain respects.
The conclusions and recommendations presented at the end of this study can be summarised as follows:
1. The case for wholesale mergers or closures in London's Higher Education Engineering enterprises is not strong.
2. That said, mutation of the nature of London's Engineering education is going on continuously in response to local, within-HEI, factors and market forces. This process will continue. The size of some functional entities in London appears small compared to the size required for any free-standing entity to prosper. For this reason - and because geographical proximity and transport links make some collaboration possible and because of latent synergies - we propose a series of actions to explore and enact collaboration and enhance market segmentation. These collaborations may include the sharing, transfer and development of staff where this will lead to more sustainable overall provision. Other possible collaborations include the cost-shared use by staff and research students of some major facilities, the provision of pan-London SARTOR type Matching Sections to enable IEng students convert to CEng streams, collaborative provision in regard to continuing professional development (CPD) and research training plus collective action in regard to marketing outside of the UK.
3. To make such collaboration happen requires a suitable standing body. No such body presently exists. Its membership should primarily be composed of those with executive responsibility for Engineering in London's universities. In many cases this is the Dean of Engineering. Funding to enable this to be an active and successful body should be sought, initially from HEFCE. One possible neutral locus for this is under the London Higher Education Consortium.
4. The success of Engineering in London in future is partly dependent on how well the different HEIs work on the above projects and how sustained and vibrant is the proposed 'umbrella body'. It is proposed that the body should be led by a distinguished and independent individual, probably someone active in business. The terms of reference of the group must be made public and it needs to have an Advisory Committee of high level 'customers' to interact on the needs for research and human capital. We suggest how this group could take forward the proposals and seek to implement them through London's HEIs.
5. Collaborations of the type envisaged are non-trivial. There will always be a tension between the needs and aspirations of any one, largely autonomous, HEI and what will benefit the local economy and the collective enterprise. We recognise all that but believe much can be gained by collaboration of the type outlined.
The 12 engineering institutions participating in this report (the 'London 12') are listed in Annex 2.