There are over 120 UK universities offering master’s and bachelor’s degrees in various engineering disciplines. As one would expect, each of these engineering degrees is influenced to some extent by the people who teach on it as well as the ethos and culture of the institution offering it. However, if one takes the time to scan the various institutional web pages, it quickly becomes clear that there are common strands running across all UK engineering degrees. In fact, these commonalities are so extensive and far-reaching, and so uniquely British that I believe it is time we started talking about the UK Engineering Degree as a generic brand encompassing all UK engineering degrees.
There are several reasons why we should identify and characterise the UK Engineering Degree brand, and these include:
- Prospective students applying to get into a UK Engineering degree programme will have a clear picture of what is involved in studying for an engineering degree in the UK;
- Employers will have a very clear understanding of the capabilities, qualities and characteristics of engineering graduates from UK universities;
- The UK Engineering Degree brand will serve as a common reference standard which stakeholders such as employers, government departments, academics and students will use to objectively compare degree programmes, to evaluate and monitor learning and teaching processes in each programme, and to encourage and guide innovation in engineering education.
Defining the generic UK Engineering Degree
The key distinguishing feature of the UK Engineering Degree is the strong integration between theory and practice. In the typical UK engineering school, theory is not taught for the sake of theory. Rather, theory is taught to be put into practice. In general, students get introduced to theory, followed by practical demonstrations, and then they are expected to apply the theory to problem solving. Mini-projects are an integral part of most UK course modules, and these mini-projects are often designed with input from industry. Furthermore, the UK Engineering Degree also has stand-alone design & skills modules where students learn to apply the theory they have learnt across several modules to the analysis and solution of industry-type problems. These design & skills modules simulate industry conditions in that students are presented with a problem, and they then work in teams to come up with appropriate solutions within a specified time-limit. Because of this, the UK Engineering Degree is best classified as an experience-led degree programme.
The term “experience-led engineering degree” first appeared in the report for the Engineering Graduates for Industry Study that was commissioned by the UK government in 2008 (Lamb et. al. 2010). The main purpose of this study was to identify effective practices within current and developing engineering degrees that went some way towards meeting the needs of industry as identified in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Educating Engineers for the 21st Century report. The study defines an experience-led engineering degree as an engineering degree which develops industry related skills and which may also include industry interaction. Industry related skills comprise all those skills and attributes which make an engineering graduate work-ready.
The Ideal Skill-set for a UK Engineering Graduate
On the basis of the information presented on the various UK institutional websites, the ideal work-ready engineering graduate has indepth theoretical knowledge of their chosen discipline and is a competent problem solver, with highly developed analysis and numerate skills, and one who is also well-rounded, with an understanding of the impact of engineering on society, and with experience of working in teams. According to the Royal Academy of Engineers, the ideal engineering graduate should have
- Appropriate technical knowledge, understanding and problem solving skills;
- A full appreciation of life cycle processes and Systems Engineering;
- People and professional skills, team-working, co-operative strategies and leadership;
- A commitment to lifelong learning.
Essential Features of the Generic UK Engineering Degree
What do students expect to see and experience when they enter a UK engineering school? One attribute that clearly stands out is that the generic UK Engineering Degree is built on a strong tripartite relationship between staff, students and industry that directly impacts both teaching and curriculum development(Lamb et. al. 2010). Figure 1 illustrates this three-way relationship:
Figure 1: Relationships between academic staff, students and industry for experience-led engineering degree programmes – Adapted from the Engineering Graduates for Industry Study report (Lamb et. al. 2010).
From the diagram in Figure 1, industry contributes significantly to the teaching that takes place in UK engineering schools. For example, in design & skills modules, practitioners from industry work alongside academics to deliver the module as well as to assess student work. Practitioners from industry also present guest lectures, in which they they share their experiences and knowledge. Some practitioners are also employed by universities as visiting lecturers and professors. In this role, they take charge of the teaching and assessment of industry-specific modules, including supervising and mentoring students during work placements.
With regard to academic staff, an increasing number are being directly recruited from industry. Whilst the traditional academic and research staff focus on teaching theory and material related to their research, staff recruited from industry are responsible for design & skills based modules, and for supervising projects with an industrial element to them. Hence, in the typical UK engineering school, students get to be taught by academic researchers and industry experts, and this provides an enabling environment for students to systematically integrate theory and practice.
The design of the generic UK Engineering Degree is also carried out in partnership with industry. As a general rule, all UK engineering degrees are either accredited, or are aspiring to get accredited, by the Engineering Council. Teams comprising people drawn from industry and universities are responsible for setting the accreditation standards and for monitoring and evaluating individual degree programmes. Within universities, industry liaison boards comprising academics and industry representative oversee the engineering degree programmes that are taught in individual institutions. Again, at the programme and module level, academics and industry practitioners work together, formally and informally, in designing core aspects of the curriculum.
Role of the Students
Students are actively involved in the design and delivery of their programmes. They provide formal and informal feedback on the quality of teaching. For instance, in the UK, student liaison committees comprising both academics and students meet regularly to review the teaching. Furthermore, in some institutions, students also sit on academic recruitment panels, which means that recruitment decisions are now jointly carried out by both academic staff and students. Within the class, students also contribute to the creation of course module material, and are also actively involved in assessment as peer assessors.
In conclusion, the generic UK Engineering Degree is now an established feature of the UK higher education landscape, and it is time that it is properly acknowledged as such. To quote from Professor Nigel Seaton, a chartered chemical engineer who is now Principal and Vice-Chancellor at Abertay University, UK engineering degrees “are good degrees to have, and equip students for a wide range of jobs. While many students embark on an engineering career, others thrive in a range of jobs, for example in management or finance” (Sellgren, 2011).
Lamb, F., Arlett, C., Dales, R., Ditchfield, B., Parkin, B. & Wakeham, W. (2010). Engineering graduates for industry. The Royal Academy of Engineering.
The Royal Academy of Engineering. (2007). Educating engineers for the 21st Century.
Sellgren, K. (2011). Engineering graduates ‘taking unskilled jobs’. BBC News. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14823042. (Downloaded 11 Dec 2016).