The UCL MSc Engineering and Education: Advice for potential applicants

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The UCL MSc Engineering and Education is now three years old and going into its fourth year. Starting with only six students in September 2018, the MSc has seen applications rising at phenomenal pace, and entry into the programme is increasingly competitive. In this advisory note I give an overview of the MSc, and provide some hints on writing a competitive application for the MSc.

An overview of the MSc

The MSc Engineering and Education is an innovative and bespoke programme that is ideal for engineering lecturers in further and higher education, and engineers or consultants who work in the national and global economy supporting the development of engineers. It seeks to meet their current and future professional needs by:

  • Introducing current debates about the contribution of education and work in developing engineers’ expertise to assist them to design/redesign/contribute to engineering courses that develop 21st century skill needs;
  • stimulating and supporting research and innovative approaches in engineering education.

The programme is jointly delivered by academic staff from the UCL Institute of Education and the Faculty of Engineering Sciences.

An outline of the programme structure

The MSc programme consists of 180 credits and it is structured around two core modules worth 30 credits each:

  • Engineering and Education: Practice Innovation and Leadership
  • Engineering Learning and Teaching: Perspectives and Issues

Students can then choose to either take a further 30 credits from an identified list of UCL Institute of Education (IOE) modules and another 30 credits from Faculty of Engineering Sciences modules subject to meeting prerequisites and the approval of the module leader.  Alternatively, students can take 60 credits from the IOE list of modules. This flexibility in choice enables students who are professionally active in the field of engineering education, but who do not have an engineering degree to enrol on the MSc. This is followed by a dissertation, worth 60 credits, or alternatively, a report worth 30 credits together with an optional  module worth 30 credits.

The Engineering Learning and Teaching: Perspectives and Issues module is intended for both aspiring and practising engineering educators who wish to gain knowledge and expertise on the latest techniques for learning, teaching and assessment in engineering. Trainers in industry who wish to gain deeper insights into engineering education will also find the module relevant to their own practice. Individual module sessions are led by practising engineering educators and knowledge experts who have achieved recognition for championing and leading innovation in learning and teaching in engineering. Module participants explore key issues and debates in engineering learning and teaching and learn how to adapt current innovations in learning and teaching to their own educational practices.

The Engineering and Education: Practice Innovation and Leadership module aims to provide students with theoretical tools and practical perspectives to develop practical ideas on the interrelationship between the organisational environment, professional learning and expertise, and innovation in a range of engineering contexts. It explores the implications of understanding the engineering workplace as a key site for both learning and innovation, of collaborative practice across disciplinary and organisational boundaries as a key source of innovation, and of leadership in developing and maintaining the kinds of working practices and cultures that support learning and innovation. The module also looks at the role of policy in creating enabling frameworks within which engineers can work productively and innovatively.

Application Process

The MSc academic year runs from October to September of the following year. Applications for the following academic year start at the end of October in the current year, and run until the end of March, giving an application window of just five months duration. In addition to meeting the academic requirements, and securing professional and academic references, we also require you to submit a personal statement as part of the application. The personal statement helps us to evaluate your passion for engineering education as well as your aptitude and preparedness for the course. It is therefore important to spend some time thinking and writing the personal statement.

In developing your personal statement, you need to pay attention to the following:

  1. Explain why you want to do the MSc. Consider your educational and professional experiences, and explain how these have influenced you to consider going into engineering education. Also give us an indication of how the MSc is likely to contribute to your career goals. It’s not enough to say, for example, “I wish to become an engineering lecturer when I graduate.” Instead, tell us why you wish to become an engineering lecturer, and explain in detail, with reference to the learning outcomes of the MSc, how the MSc is going to help you in becoming an effective, high-impact engineering lecturer. This means that you must have indepth understanding of what it takes to become a successful engineering lecturer, and an understanding of how the MSc learning outcomes can contribute to this.
  2. Justify why we should offer you a position. Most people who are applying to enrol on the MSc meet the academic requirements, hence you should spend some thinking about your personal attributes and providing evidence why we should choose you ahead of other equally qualified applicants. Tell us about your current and previous engagement with engineering education related activities. Successful applicants are likely to demonstrate engagement with several aspects of engineering education and practice. This may include supporting the learning of other engineering students, promoting engineering to pre-university students, through, for example, engagement in STEM outreach programmes, or supporting schools to deliver engineering-focussed enrichment programmes for their students. Other initiatives that you might want to discuss may include supporting the professional development of practising engineers, through, for instance, delivering Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses and activities. For instance, active engagement with professional engineering institutions is something we look upon very favourably. Other activities that you may wish to discuss would be initiatives to improve equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) within both the engineering profession and within engineering education.
  3. Show us that you are actively keeping pace with current debates and issues in engineering education and practice. Develop the habit of looking up and reading the literature on engineering education research. This can be through reading engineering education journal and conference articles. If you are a university student, make it a point to attend engineering learning and teaching seminars where your lecturers discuss the latest topics on engineering learning and teaching. Also look out for webinars presented by engineering institutions – these are typically free, and enable practitioners and educators to meet and discuss engineering education and training issues. If you have contributed to a conference, journal or webinar, let us know – give us a brief overview of your work, and how it has impacted the engineering education community.

Why not try the MSc?

There is no better time than now to get involved in engineering education research, policy and practice. Engineering is at the very centre of our ability to address global social, human welfare, environmental and economic challenges. However, our capacity to deliver solutions to these challenges is lacking. We desperately need to improve the supply of talent to engineering, to ensure diversity, inclusivity and openness, and to improve the quality and nature of engineering education and skills at all levels. Traditional methods and approaches have proved to be unequal to the task. We need new and fresh perspectives to the education and training of engineers at all levels, and you could be the one to lead us in achieving these goals. Have a look at what the UCL MSc Engineering and Education can offer you, and get in touch with us.

The state of Africa’s economic development: Is this not a continent’s cry for more women in engineering?

Sub Saharan Africa’s economies have remained largely stagnant for the past 40 years, and during this whole period, women have largely been marginalised within engineering, be it in education or in practice. Were engineering to become more inclusive, would this not help to lift Sub Saharan Africa out of its current economic stagnation? Almost 25 years ago, in 1994, Winnie Byanyima, who is now the Executive Director of Oxfam International, asked the very same question in her Daphne Jackson Memorial Lecture at the University of Cambridge.

The title of her lecture was “The role of women in developing countries,” and her primary focus was Sub Saharan Africa.  Then, as is the case now, Sub Saharan African countries were pegged at the lowest end of the economic development scale. Then, as is the case now, Sub Saharan African countries had immense natural resources that remain largely untapped. Then, as is the case now, the economies of these countries were characterised by a low technological and scientific base, and a correspondingly small industrial sector. Then, as is the case now, the main economic activity was agriculture, which has been forever characterised by under-investment and low productivity.

Yet, even back then, African governments were very aware of the economic benefits of investing in people as a vehicle for development. And they were doing something about it, just as they are still doing something about it. Following in the footsteps of Europe and North America, post-colonial Sub Saharan Africa was, and is, making significant investments in engineering education. Yet this investment has not brought the expected economic benefits that are so visible in Europe and North America. Instead, a recent report by the African Technology Policy Studies Network paints a bleak picture:

Despite the existence of engineering institutions in Sub-Saharan African countries that have been graduating hundreds of engineers annually for about four decades, there has been little progress in the acquisition and effective utilization of technology for industrial development(Afonja et al. 2005).

What went wrong? As Afonja et al. (2005)suggest,  there are multiple reasons for this failure, including some that are beyond the control of individual African governments. This is to be expected, as economic underdevelopment is a very complex phenomenon that requires a multi-pronged approach to address. But most certainly, one of the missing elements to the African economic development jigsaw puzzle has been the continued marginalisation of women at all levels of engineering. Today, just as was the case in 1994, both engineering education and engineering practice  are characterised by low percentages of women (Afonja et al. 2005; Manyuchi et al. 2015). A case in point is Zimbabwe, where:

The number of women pursuing engineering education is still as low as 11% for undergraduate degrees and as low as 14% for postgraduate degrees.  Moreover, the number of women offering engineering education at these major universities is still as low as 13%.”(Manyuchi et al. 2015)

With regard to Sub Saharan Africa, Winnie Byanyima argues that for millennia, women have been “the primary users and managers of the environment, the health-givers, and food-providers.”  Even now, women in Africa shoulder the burden of economic survival. They make up the bulk of the small scale farmers, and the bulk of informal traders, even to the extent of bringing in a bigger slice of the family income compared to men.  Through these roles, women in Sub Saharan Africa have “accumulated vast knowledge and technologies in the fields of health, biodiversity, agriculture and food processing”(Byanyima 1994). And yet, modern engineering education and practice has consigned women to the margins. Such marginalisation, argues Winnie, has led to the non-utilisation, and subsequent loss of all the knowledge and experiential capital that women have accumulated over the centuries. In turn, this has led to the implementation of inappropriate engineering solutions as men lack the indepth, nuanced environmental and socio-cultural expertise that women possess by virtue of their historical roles in the African community.

In any case, given that women make more than half the entire Sub Saharan African population, excluding them from engineering means that we deprive engineering of at least half the available potential for creativity and innovation. This has huge consequences for the women themselves, their children, their families and the economy at large. In acknowledgement of this fact, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) comments:

The case for gender equality is founded in both human rights and economic arguments. As such, closing gender gaps must be a central part of any strategy to create more sustainable and inclusive economies and societies (Adema et al. 2014)

 So, is it not time that Sub Saharan Africa open up the doors of engineering education and practice to women? And is it not time that the culture within Sub Saharan African engineering education and practice become more welcoming to women and other historically marginalised communities? And is it not time that Sub Saharan African fathers, mothers and teachers stop channelling girls to “feminine” jobs, such as nursing and clerical work, and instead, work together to remove the deep-seated cultural obstacles that make it so difficult for women to pursue successful careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)? Surely, is it not time for a new dawn in the unfolding history of women in engineering?


Adema, W., Ali, N., Frey, V., Kim, H., Lunati, M., Piacentini, M., and Queisser, M. (2014). Enhancing Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship and Business Leadership in OECD Countries. OECD.

Afonja, A., Sraku-Lartey, K., and Oni, S. (2005). “Engineering education for industrial development: case studies of Nigeria, Ghana and Zimbabwe.” Nairobi: ATPS Working Paper, 42.

Byanyima, W. (1994). “The role of women engineers in developing countries.” RSA Journal, 142(5454), 57-66.

Manyuchi, M. M., Nleya, M., Chihambakwe, Z. J., and Gudukeya, L. K. “Zimbabwean Women in Engineering Education-Is It About Technophobia?” Presented at Proceedings of The Engineers Without Borders Conference, Livingstone, Zambia.

The London Job Market: Time now for community-based Informal Learning

1: The Changing London Job Landscape

There are growing fears that in the not-too-distant future, the majority of us will be replaced from our current jobs by technology. These fears appear to be quite well justified. In 2014, Deloitte LLP invited two Oxford academics, Frey and Osborne, to investigate the risks of jobs in London being taken over by technology over the next 10 to 20 years. They found that almost one in three of all London jobs were at risk of being taken over.

Hourglass Work Model
The hour – glass effect of technology on jobs (Hackett, Shutt & Maclachlan, 2012)


However, the impact of technology is not the same on all jobs. As Frey and Osborne found out, low paying jobs were more likely to be taken over by technology than high paying jobs.  In fact, according to their calculations, people earning £30 000 or less were more likely to go than those earning £100 000 and above.  This suggests that the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is likely to increase further as technology penetrates deeper into the workplace. This has serious implications for London, and other major cities – technology is likely to concentrate wealth into the hands of a few very rich people, and consign the majority of city populations to low-level menial jobs.

Frey and Osborne also discovered a hollowing out of mid-level salary jobs, a phenomenon that Paul Sissons has termed “the hourglass effect.”  In their study, the jobs that were most likely to go were middle-skill, middle-income, routine cognitive and manual tasks such as office and administrative support, book-keeping, sales and services, transportation, construction and manufacturing. These jobs make up the bulk of typical London occupations, and all of them consist of procedures that can easily be programmed into a computer system.

London jobs that are least likely to go include high salary jobs in senior management, IT, engineering and science, legal services, arts and education. Paul Sissons classifies these jobs as managerial, professional, and associate professional and technical occupations. According to him, these jobs accounted for more than 75% in employment growth in the UK over the period 2001 to 2007.

Frey and Osborne also identified a number of low level salary jobs that are least likely to be replaced by technology.  These include healthcare, personal services jobs like food services, cleaning, child care, hairdressing and recreation occupations. According to Paul Sisson, each of these low-skill, low-wage jobs is quite difficult to automate because “they consist of either a series of non-routine physical tasks, or because it relies on inter-personal (soft) skills”.

2: Emerging Job Skills for the Future

Frey and Osborne suggest that jobs that are least likely to be replaced by technology require a combination of technical, social and creative skills. In their study they found out that in London, at the moment, and in the near future, the five top skills in demand are digital know how, management, creativity, entrepreneurship and problem solving.

It is likely that new jobs are likely to emerge in place of those jobs that have been taken over by technology. As Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole, who all work as economists at Deloitte LLP, found out, when technology is adopted, it leads to job increases. Using census data for England and Wales going back 150 years, they found that the general effect of technological change, from the invention of the steam engine right up to today’s Internet age, has been to increase jobs, usually in completely new areas. It goes without saying that for the case of London, any new jobs created are likely to demand skills in the top five skills now in demand: digital know how, management, creativity, entrepreneurship and problem solving.

3: Preparing for the Technological Onslaught

Given the changing London job landscape as a result of technology, we can do one of two things. We can choose to do nothing and let events take their own course. This would be suicidal. The London Poverty Profile report for the year 2015 indicates that almost one third (27%) of all Londoners live in poverty. The majority of these people are in a working family, and the main reason for poverty is the toxic combination of low salaries and high housing costs. Doing nothing will certainly lead to further increases in the proportion of people living in poverty. In fact, it’s not unthinkable that doing nothing will lead to poverty levels reaching the high percentiles common in the least developed countries. And not doing anything has serious political and existential consequences for London and the UK. As we saw in the Brexit vote, people who feel left out by economic changes are no longer willing to just look on and do nothing. After all, as history testifies, a hungry population is a very angry population indeed.

The other option, which is the only viable option, is to prepare London for the emerging technological onslaught. There is need for re-training and education for all those people in low level jobs, and those in mid-salary level jobs that are threatened by technology. The formal education system alone cannot cope. Whole communities, including children and adults, need to be equipped with the key skills that are now in demand: digital know how, management, creativity, entrepreneurship and problem solving. One approach to this is promoting informal community-based learning.

In 2009 the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills published a white paper aimed at promoting informal learning within communities. Entitled “the Learning Revolution”, this white paper sought to “empower more people to organise themselves to learn, with opportunities designed by communities for communities.” The paper drew up some guiding principles, which they adopted from the UNESCO 1996 paper entitled “Learning: The treasure within.” These principles are:

  • Learning to know – becoming inspired, discovering and exploring, developing a passion for learning, acquiring knowledge and understanding of ourselves, our immediate world and beyond
  • Learning to do – gaining skills, confidence, competence and practical abilities
  • Learning to live together – learning tolerance, mutual understanding and interdependence, sharing the experience of learning with family and friends
  • Learning to be – developing ourselves, our mental and physical capacity, wellbeing and autonomy, and our ability to take control of our lives and influence the world around us.

Although these government efforts have been shelved since the change in government, it is imperative that we resuscitate the community-based informal learning programme. London has the highest concentration of world-class universities, all of which are leading in STEM research and education. London therefore has sufficient human capacity to initiate and lead community efforts to equip its people with the skills that are needed for today. In this regard, I see London academics and university students going into non-traditional learning spaces like churches, mosques, pubs, and food restaurants to help people acquire the five critical skills now needed for survival in the technological era. This will be authentic learning in practice, and though it may not lead to academic credentials, it will certainly empower people to have mastery over the incoming technology, including the setting up of tech entrepreneurial ventures up and down London. Is this not costly and improbable, we may ask. Certainly not, if we consider the ghastly consequences of doing nothing.


  1. Carl Benedikt Frey & Michael A. Osborne. 2014. Agiletown: The relentless march of technology and London’s response. Deloitte LLP, London.
  2. Ian Stewart, Debapratim De, & Alex Cole. Technology and people: the great job-creating machine. Deloitte LLP, London.
  3. Paul Sissons. 2011. “The Hourglass and the Escalator: Labour market change and mobility.”paper of the Bottom Ten Million research programme, The Work Foundation, London, UK (2011).
  4. Hannah Aldridge, Theo Barry Born, Adam Tinson and Tom MacInnes (2015). London’s Poverty Profile 2015. London.
  5. Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. 2009. The Learning Revolution. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London
  6. 1996. Learning: The treasure within. UNESCO Publishing, Paris.
  7. Hackett, L. Shutt, and N. Maclachlan. 2012. The Way We’ll Work: Labour market trends and preparing for the hourglass.AGCAS

Engineering: The Mysterious “E” in “STEM”

It has been said that a country’s economy is only as good as the sum-total creativity of its citizens. That is true. Today, creativity goes hand in hand with technology; and doing wonders with technology is the realm of Engineering, that mysterious term in the quartet STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In all the countries trying to make it economically, STEM is the buzz-word, and engineering is the way to go.

For the past several decades, five nations have sworn by the term engineering, and they have prospered beyond their wildest beliefs. Because of their phenomenal economic and technological success, they are now collectively termed the Asian Tigers. Officially, the Asian Tigers are Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. But in any narrative referring to them, Japan is always included, and for good reason – it is the Master Tiger of Technology. Put together, in terms of land-size, these five countries hardly make a blip on the earth’s total land mass. Natural resource-wise, they have next to nothing. Their total natural resources don’t even make 1% of the sum total of Africa’s natural resources.  However, when it comes to wealth, they rank high on all measures of economic performance.

Their products, companies and technological innovations are household names.  Just think of South Korea, and Samsung, Hyundai and LG immediately spring to mind. Turn your thoughts to electronic manufacturing and notebooks, and Taiwan, and its technology conglomerates, Foxconn and Quanta Computer, immediately flash past your memory. And when it comes to banking, your list won’t be complete without the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, otherwise known as HSBC. And if you are both technologically and civic minded, the mere mention of “smart city” and “smart nation” immediately conjures images of Singapore. And of course, you can hardly begin to think about technology, whether it be the nice affordable cars that have flooded the world for decades, or the futuristic robotics that now threaten our own jobs, without ever thinking of Japan.

The economic success of the Asian Tigers is all down to engineering, yet few people here in the UK have got any idea what engineering is all about. Ask any child what a lawyer, doctor, or accountant does, and I bet they can give you a very concise explanation. Ask them what an engineer does, and you draw a blank, or at best they refer you to the “engineer” who comes to repair the drain pipe. Talk about science, and they refer you immediately to all the science stories appearing on television. Except that what is often termed “science” by the professional media is really engineering in practice. “Scientists have designed a super-fast computer; scientists have built a gravity-defying rocket to reach planet Mars” – No! All this is engineering. Scientists discover and test theories, engineers design and build.

So what is engineering? The Oxford online dictionary defines engineering as “the branch of science and technology concerned with the design, building, and use of engines, machines, and structures.” Of course, engineering is all about applying science and technology to the design and construction of all these things, and many others beside them. However, this definition looks a bit stodgy, and distinctly frightening and unappealing, and for me it is quite  incomplete.

I like better their alternative definition: “The action of working artfully to bring something about.”  Bringing together people and technology to solve problems is what engineering is all about. To succeed one has to have a good understanding of the science behind the problem, but above all, one has to be creative, and determined. Here at UCL Engineering we have gone one step further, and define engineering as “the art and practice of changing the physical world for the use and benefit of all.” In short, you can’t talk of engineering without talking of creativity. In today’s world, the two are synonymous.

Employment outcomes of engineering graduates: The stubborn issues

The Royal Academy of Engineering recently published its report on employment outcomes for engineering graduates for the year 2013/14. The good news is that the employability credentials for engineering remain strong, with 81% of engineering graduates in 2013/14 managing to be in full-time work, further study or a combination of both 6 months after graduation. Of course, this is significantly better than the corresponding figure of 76% for all graduates. However, a closer look at the figures reveals that still, all is not well. The perennial issues pertaining to gender diversity, ageism, social and ethnic exclusion are still evident in the engineering employment figures, and it is these issues that I focus on in this article.

First, engineering is still the only discipline where male graduates outnumber female graduates in employment 6 months after graduation. The only consolation is that this gap appears to be closing. But this pales into insignificance when you realise that women make up just 12-15% of the cohort. This is an agonisingly small proportion given that women increasingly outnumber men in most subject areas. In fact, a woman stands a better chance of securing a job within 6 months of graduating in virtually any other subject area when compared to engineering.

Is it that engineering employers still shun female graduates, even now when we are in a supposedly more enlightened age? Or is it that somehow university lecturers are still in the business of killing off any female interest in engineering? Of course, there have been improvements on both issues compared to previous years, but it is quite clear that these improvements have not gone as far as we would wish. As the saying goes, the last mile is the hardest, and this appears to be the case here.

Again ageism still reigns supreme in engineering. Graduates over the age of 25 are more likely to be unemployed than their much younger colleagues. In fact, you can easily double your chances of being unemployed simply by turning 25 years or more. Added to this, you are significantly more likely to be unemployed 6 months after graduating if you opted to do your engineering degree at a post 1992 university instead of going to a traditional research intensive university. Is it that the teaching in post 1992s is particularly bad? Certainly not. In fact, these institutions are at the forefront of leading innovation in engineering education.

This apparent ageism can only mean one thing: If you are from a working class background and aspire to improve yourself by taking an engineering course at the local university down the road, then you may have to be prepared for the worst. Clearly, ageism and institutional exclusivity have implications for social mobility, and because of this, these two issues need to be addressed by all members of our engineering community.

We in the UK pride ourselves for our ethnic inclusivity. Indeed, we have made huge strides in addressing ethnic exclusion in various areas of our lives. Sadly, for engineering this is still work in progress. When it comes to graduate employability for non-white, or Black or minority ethnic (BME) graduates, engineering comes out at the bottom. For the year in question, 2013/14, only 46% black graduates were in employment 6 months after graduating, compared to 71% of white graduates. Also, whilst 60% of white graduates secured jobs in engineering, only 40% of BME graduates managed to do so.

Finally, whereas in all subject areas your chances of securing a job are diminished if you fail to get a 2.1 or better, this is acutely accentuated in engineering. Here academic snobbishness still reigns supreme, and it does so to such an extent that failing to get a 2.1 or better means that you double your chances of being without a job 6 months after graduation. This is unfortunate, since it is still a moot point within the engineering sector whether or not there is a correlation between a graduate’s degree classification and performance at work. Were this correlation to be established beyond any reasonable doubt, then our quest for more effective and authentic learning, teaching and assessment methods would be over.

So what can we say? Only that for everyone involved with engineering, our work is still cut out. We still have much to do before gender, age and ethnic inclusivity are achieved in engineering. And for those still unemployed 6 months after graduating, don’t give up. And for engineering employers, give our non-traditional graduates a chance. After all, diversity improves innovation, and who knows, your organisation’s future may depend on that one non-traditional graduate whose CV you have committed to the paper shredder.

The Experience Factor: It Matters

I have long been an advocate for internships and work experience. My reasons are two-fold: First, work experience helps students to integrate theory and practice.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly,  I have come to know from the experiences of hundreds of students that it facilitates a pathway into that all important first graduate job. However, despite this awareness, I had never sat on the other side of the table as an employer who has the unenviable task of sifting through hundreds of applications to choose the next set of potential graduate recruits. One large employer finally gave me this opportunity,  and what a huge learning experience it has been for me!

One thing immediately became clear to me after I had gone through tens of applications, and reading through the various employment statements: Work experience neatly divides a pool of applicants into two: those who are in a ready state to be employed, and those who are not ready, despite their excellent academic performance.

Key on the employer’s list were the applicant’s leadership skills,  awareness of business practices, and team-working skills. Applicants with little or no work experience struggled in all these categories, particularly in those instances where the application process required them to provide approapriate examples. At best, their examples looked unreal, contrived, wish-washy, and definitely out of this world. Some were hilarious, to the point of bordering on comedy. And comedy they would have been, except that these were applications from serious individuals who had spent four years in university, had attained good grades, and were looking for their first real jobs. Yes they had all graduated, yet quite a significant number of these applicants had no idea of what to expect in a job.

Another important lessson that I learnt is this: It pays to think back on what went well, and what went wrong in your work experience. For example, some of the applicants had clearly reflected on their experiences. In their applications, they  discussed their personal achievements, honestly took stock of their shortcomings, and suggested what they could have done better, and how work processes could be improved to accomodate interns and  early-stage employees. Some of these applications even went further to identify specific areas where the applicant  thought they would need additional training and support. I realised that employing such an applicant would certainly make the job of everyone within the technical department that much easier, and it was quite clear that any of these applicants would be able to fit into the organisational work culture very well.

This was not so with the other applicants with substantial work experience. This category simply narrated what they had done. They gave no indication that they had thought about their work experiences, or that they had learnt anything at all. For most of the applications in this category, it appeared as if they had simply gone through the motions of work experience without engaging with their roles. They certainly looked disinterested and unmotivated. Perhaps this was down to inexperience in writing applications. But given the significant investments made by universities in student career services, this is quite difficult to believe. Whatever the reason, for this particular large employer, this simply reduced to: Who in their right mind would want to employ a disinterested, demotivated graduate employee? 

If you are a student, the point to take home is simply this: Get a work placement while you can. Your future may depend on it. And when you get one, learn all you can from it. Learn about the role, and learn about yourself as well.

If you are an academic, the take-home point should be this: Make it a point to talk about work placements with your students at every conceivable moment. They may not yet appreciate it. But it matters, and if you care for the future of  your students, just do it.

If you are an employer, the take-home point is this: Open up your work places to students. That may be the greatest service you can do to your bottom-line, your industry , and to society in general.





Recognising Teachers in the Life Sciences: A Review

How to cite the reviewed work:

Harris, J. 2015. Recognising Teachers in the Life Sciences. The Physiological Society. London. Available at: [Accessed: 24 April 2016].


Within the UK it has been the traditional norm that academics carry out research and teaching as part of their role. However, with the emergence of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in 1986 and its subsequent evolution to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), discipline research is increasingly restricted to academics whose research meets the requirements of the REF/RAE. A direct consequence of this is that an ever-increasing number of academics are now employed solely to focus on teaching, and on education management. However, the literature on teaching-focussed academics in the UK is still limited, hence the growing interest in this publication from the Physiological Society.

Why This Booklet is an Important Contribution

The Physiological Society has made an attempt to further our understanding of teaching-focussed careers through the publication of this booklet entitled “Recognising Teachers in the Life Sciences.” This booklet features 32 academics in the biological and medical sciences who have been promoted at one or more stages in their career on the basis of their contributions to teaching and/or education management. These academics are drawn from three categories:

  • Group 1: Academics whose first permanent appointment was focused on education
  • Group 2: Academics whose career focus switched from discipline-based research or a clinical role to education
  • Group 3: Academics who combine discipline-based research or a clinical role with significant educational activity

The Physiological Society hopes that by publishing this booklet, teaching-focussed academics will have role models to emulate, and universities will have practical examples to help them to develop teaching-oriented promotion criteria for their own academics.

The booklet also provides important advice to those of us seeking to gain recognition and promotion on the basis of teaching and education management. This is because promotion on the basis of teaching is a relatively recent phenomenon. Hence, few or no people on academic promotion committees have any personal experience of the teaching-focussed academic role.  Also, departmental senior academics tasked with appointing and overseeing teaching-focussed academics have little or no guidance on developing roles that have scope for academic progression. Consequently, academic departments often lack the necessary resources to provided adequate mentorship and leadership to teaching-focussed academics.

Areas for Further Research

For the reasons discussed above, the booklet is a very timely addition to the literature on teaching-focussed academics. However, an analysis of the 32 academic careers showcased in the booklet also raises some serious concerns with the teaching-focussed academic role. I will now turn my attention to these concerns.

1: Gender Bias: As Table 1 shows, the 32 academics featured in this booklet are roughly balanced in terms of gender, with 17 being male, and 15 female. In addition, two of the academic categories have significantly more males than females. These two groups comprise academics who switched to teaching-focussed roles from discipline-based research or a clinical role to education, and academics who have maintained these roles in addition to a focus on teaching. In contrast, Group 1 which comprises academics who were appointed directly into teaching-only roles, has only one male and 7 females. Whilst the sample size is too small for these differences to be statistically significant, it is pertinent to establish whether or not the teaching-only academic route, as typified by Group 1, is becoming an academic role to which women are shunted into.

Table 1: Gender Distribution

Group Actual Numbers   Percentage Ratio  
  Male Female Male Female
All 17 15 53.1% 46.9%
1 1 7 12.5% 87.5%
2 11 6 64.7% 35.3%
3 5 2 71.4% 28.6%

2: Parity of Esteem between the Teaching-only Role and the Research and Teaching Role: Table 2 gives the distribution of professors in each of the three groups. Only 25% of teaching-only academics, as indicated by Group 1, have attained professorships. This is in contrast to academics in Groups 2 and 3 where professors make up 64.7% and 71.4% of the groups respectively. Again, whilst the figures in this booklet are too small for these proportions to be statistically significant, one is left wondering if teaching –only academics, as indicated by Group 1, have significantly more difficult chances of securing professorships than academics in the other two groups. One might assume that perhaps this may be due to differences in lengths of services of the academics in the three groups. However, the average length of service for the three groups is 20.5, 26.0 and 25.14 for groups 1, 2 and 3 respectively. These lengths of service appear to be sufficiently close to each other to rule out disparities in length of service as a contributing factor.

In practice, research-focussed academics typically attain professorships within 10 to 15 years on average. Given the relatively high number of non-professors in all three groups, and the average length of services that in excess of 20 years, this may suggest that a focus on teaching is detrimental to academic progression in the current higher education environment.

Table 2: Distribution of Professors by Grouping

Group Total No. of Academics No. of Professors Ratio of Professors to academics (%)
All 32 18 56.25%
1 8 2 25%
2 17 11 64.7%
3 7 5 71.4%
  1. Impact of University Type on Progression of Teaching-focussed Academics: The 32 academics presented in this booklet comprise 23 academics from research intensive institutions and 9 academics from post 1992 non-research intensive institutions. Of the 9 academics from post 1992 institutions, 8 are full professors compared to only 10 of the 23 academics from research intensive institutions. Again, whilst these figures are not statistically significant, it strongly suggests that one is more likely to progress to full professorship in a non-research intensive university than in a research intensive university. Of course it may be argued that the academics covered in this booklet are based on opportunistic sampling and are not representative of all biosciences and medical academics within the UK. However, given the objectives of this booklet, it is reasonable to assume that the editors went out of their way to identify and include those academics with the strongest promotion records.

Table 3: Distribution of Professors and Other Academic Staff Categories by University Type

 University Type No. of Professors Total No. of Other Academics Proportion of Academics who are Professors (%)
All 18 14 56.25%
Non Research Intensive 8 1 88.9%
Research Intensive 10 13 43.5%

Concluding Remarks

The booklet is an important contribution to our understanding of teaching-only academic roles, and I would recommend it to all teaching-focussed academics, senior academics with management responsibilities, and academics serving on promotion committees. For the higher education researcher, the booklet also gives a snapshot of  some of the emergent mutations of the academic role, and also raises important questions regarding parity of esteem and sustainability of teaching-focussed roles vis a vis the established research and teaching role.

University Curriculum Change & Renewal: Avoiding Extinction

In a BBC article discussing the future of banking, Matthew Wall poses the question: “Is old tech putting banks under threat of extinction?”  Traditional banking systems typically run on mainframe computers. These computers are reliable and can handle huge volumes of transactions, but they are slow. The advent of mobile and online technology has changed the dynamics of banking. Clients now expect transactions to take place anytime, anywhere, and in real time. This calls for fast, agile and flexible computer processing. And the old mainframe technology cannot cope.

Banks have tried to solve this problem by building new layers of modern software technology around the legacy mainframe systems. But the results have been far from satisfactory. The old cannot work with the new, and the results are the computer glitches and inexplicable system breakdowns that are now routine in the banking industry. Naturally, non-traditional competitors have seen an opportunity to make a quick buck, and the large traditional banks are now facing stiff competition from start-ups who are now offering mobile and online banking services running on nimble technology which is free of the legacy mainframe systems.

The old banks are now feeling the heat from competition brought about by a new technological era. And some are likely to go down, to become extinct, like the old dinosaurs. And this has left me wondering about our current university system. So far we have managed to keep the competition at bay. We have managed to incorporate modern technologies into our systems, but in most cases, only as far as augmenting the same teacher-centred educational approach we so much love. Our degree programmes have remained largely the same, and changes have largely been cosmetic –   at most a few changes in teaching approaches in a few modules, but with the core remaining largely untouched. In the few cases where wholesale change has been proposed, this has been quickly snuffed out.

But how long will this status quo last, and if nimble, determined, well-funded, politically connected competitors appear on the horizon, will the old university system cope?  Like the traditional banks, we can choose to wait. After all, universities, like banks, are essentially conservative organisations. However, such a strategy may well spell the end of the university as we know it. An alternative is to do the unthinkable – anticipate the new requirements for university education in the modern day, and implement and take control of change. To my knowledge, only one university has been bold enough, or foolish enough, to anticipate change and take it by the horns, so to speak. This is the University of Melbourne, in Australia, with their now famous, or infamous curriculum, the Melbourne Model. The question I want to address is: If the unthinkable becomes the only alternative, what does it take? Richard James and Peter McPhee (2012) have shared their experiences in implementing a whole-institution curriculum change at the University of Melbourne, and in this blog I will share their insights with you.

In 2007 the University of Melbourne replaced all the 96 undergraduate programmes it had with a new structure comprising six generalist three year undergraduate degrees followed by professional graduate courses. These six undergraduate courses are arts, biomedicine, commerce, environment, music and science. The model was informed by the American undergraduate liberal education system, and by the European Bologna Process. The Melbourne Model seeks to produce graduates with both depth and breadth in knowledge. Breadth is achieved by ensuring that undergraduate students undertake at least 20-25% of their studies in an area outside their core discipline. Depth is achieved primarily through disciplinary specialisation at the graduate level.

Needless to say, this was a highly contentious change process that fundamentally changed the university’s education system, and substantially impacted the entire Australian public university system. Richard James and Peter McPhee suggest that the following actions by the university helped to ensure that the curriculum change process was a success:

  1. The University of Melbourne implemented its curriculum change from a position of strength. It is a highly ranked prestigious university that is highly regarded in both research and teaching.
  2. The process was led by a highly motivated and effective leadership team who advocated publicly and privately for the adoption of the new curriculum.
  3. The university had substantial financial resources which it used to ensure that research activities would not be affected by the curriculum changes.
  4. External stakeholders, including the government, government agencies, and professional associations were engaged throughout the whole process. For instance, government had to be persuaded to support the curriculum change with an appropriate student fee funding structure. Similarly, the university also worked closely with professional bodies in Engineering, Medicine, Dentistry, Law and Architecture to ensure that the new curriculum met with their professional requirements.
  5. Within the university, efforts were made to ensure that the curriculum change process was underpinned by a shared ethos of educational values and beliefs. Time and resources were invested into building consensus on a shared set of educational beliefs across all disciplines.
  6. The university also took into account the values and expectations of students and their families. This also included the views of international students, who made up 25% of the university student body, and who contributed significantly towards student fee income.
  7. The university also considered the implications of the changes on the income flows and business models of the various schools and faculties and made appropriate compromises.
  8. The university also paid attention to the external political implications of the curriculum changes at the university, and took appropriate mitigation steps when necessary.
  9. Careful attention was paid to the logistics associated with the change. Staff, space and time issues were all carefully addressed to ensure that these would not negatively impact the curriculum change process.

Now the dust is settling down. The term “Melbourne Model” has found its way into the higher education lexicon, and the University of Melbourne brand now stands out very distinctly in the Australian higher education landscape and beyond. And this is all because a dedicated, far-sighted  and bold university leadership chose to throw caution to the wind and implement change according to its own belief systems without the constraints brought about by external pressure.


James, R., & McPhee, P. (2012). The whole-of-institution curriculum renewal undertaken by the University of Melbourne, 2005–201l. Strategic curriculum change: Global trends in universities, 145-159.

Wall, M. (2016, March 26). Is old tech putting banks under threat of extinction? BBC News. Retrieved from

Engineering Skills and Demand: No More Time for the Blame Game

For the past 10 years the Institution of Engineering Education (IET) has been compiling and publishing an annual survey on the skills and demand for engineers by industries in the United Kingdom. This year’s survey makes particularly depressing reading for the Engineering Education sector, particularly those of us in higher education. According to the survey, the issues and concerns that have been raised by industry regarding the quality of engineering graduates have remained consistently the same over the entire decade. These issues include the lack of business acumen, and the lack of practical experience and leadership and management skills. In short, year in, year out, engineering graduates are demonstrating an appalling lack of the “soft” and “work ready” skills necessary for them to take on productive roles in industry.

Over 50% of the surveyed employers say that engineering recruits fall short of the expected standard. Two thirds say that this now constitutes a threat to the viability of their businesses.  More damning, however, employers think that that current engineering graduates lack the sense of autonomy and responsibility needed in business, something which is generally viewed as a basic outcome of a well-rounded university education.  In addition, two thirds of the surveyed employers also feel that the UK education system, as it is currently constituted, is not able to deliver the skills required for technological change. More ominously, industry strongly feels that most of our undergraduate engineering programmes are out of date, and a large chunk of our programmes seriously lack the required technical depth. By and large, industry feels that our programmes are failing to develop the practical skills they need. In short, ten years of surveys, and ten years of recommendations, and what do our undergraduate engineering programmes get: A huge indictment – Not Fit for Purpose.

Most of us in higher education may feel that this is industry doing what it is best known for – putting the blame for everything relating to education and training on higher education. On the side of industry, ominous dark whispers are now making the rounds: is university education necessary for the development of industry? Some are even thinking of going it alone, citing the likes of famous university dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who went on to build  Microsoft and Apple respectively.

Of course, this is neatly forgetting that the outcomes of these two geniuses would have come to nothing without the culture of cooperation and cross-fertilisation that exists between universities and the technology industry in the United States. Which brings me to the point I want to make: What does the consistent failure of UK engineering higher education in the eyes of industry, and the attendant blame game actually mean? Simply this, there is a shocking lack of cooperation between higher education and industry when it comes to engineering education. Granted, there is some cooperation between a few academics and individuals in industry, but this is not a collaboration dictated by strategic concerns on the part of both universities and industry. It is opportunistic, and lacks the necessary policy and infrastructural support to make any lasting impact.  And the losers are the universities, industry itself, and the unfortunate undergraduate students, and, as a consequence, the entire UK economy.

Am I laying it a bit too thick? I don’t think so, and even the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning (CAVTL)  has come to the same conclusion – it is time industry and the education and training providers  collaborated in delivering vocational education. The CAVTL was set up in 2012 with a remit to identify ways to improve vocational education and training in the UK. In its report, the CAVTL recommends that “vocational teaching must be characterised by a clear line of sight to work, and the VET system should operate as a two-way street (their emphasis).

By  “a clear line of sight to work”, the CAVTL means that learners must be able to see “why they are learning what they are learning, understand what the development of occupational expertise is all about, and experience the job in context” (CAVTL 2013, pp. 7). To achieve this there must be genuine collaboration between industry and training and education providers (CAVTL 2013, pp. 7).  And, according to the CAVTL report, this can only happen if employers stop being just customers of vocational teaching and training, but move up and become actively engaged at every level in the creation and delivery of vocational programmes.

So what can we learn from the ten years of surveys on the engineering skills and demand for engineers by UK industry. Simply this, it’s no longer time to play the blame game. Instead, it’s now time for engineering schools and industry to work collabatively in the development and delivery of up to date, high quality, excellent engineering undergraduate programmes. And who knows, Silicon Valley, Shanghai, the Ruhr Region, and Tokyo will soon be knocking on our doorsteps.


The Institution of Engineering Technology (IET). (2015). Skills and Demand in Industry – 2015 Survey. Retrieved from the IET Website:

The Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning (CAVTL). (2013). It’s about work…Excellent adult vocational teaching and learning: the summary report of the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from Excellence Gateway Website: