Poor Public Perceptions of Engineering: It doesn’t need to be this way

Ask anyone, even a young child who is beginning primary school, what an accountant does for a living, or what a medical doctor does, or what a banker does for a living, or what a scientist does, and chances are you will get a very clear description of their professions.

Go into any shopping mall, and ask a couple of people what an engineer does, and chances are you are likely to get blank stares. Most don’t know, and worse, most people don’t even think it is worth knowing at all.

Even the few who think they know, they will most likely tell you that an engineer is a muscular man who toils hard, doing back-breaking, unrewarding, and unfullfilling work like construction work, or moving around huge blocks of steel and iron in some dark places called factories. The simple point is that engineering remains largely unknown, and largely unacknowledged.

Ask anyone from the engineering community why this is the case, and you will receive several competing answers. The commonest one is that other people who do not deserve the title of engineer at all, people like repairs men, construction workers, and locomotive drivers, have usurped the name for their own use in a bid to look more glamorous in public.

Others suggest that the public know little about engineering because we haven’t told them what it is. Yet still, others believe that it is likely that most people might know about engineering, but sincerely believe that it is not for them – it’s too hard, or it’s too complicated for them. Others turn the blame on the media for selectively promoting other professions as “cool” and “desirable”, whilst denigrating engineering.

All these suggestions are partially true, but it’s not the whole truth. You don’t see the medical profession running up and down the streets begging for people to know them. No, not even the accountants or the almost universally hated bankers do this. Why? The answer is simple – we all know, or to put it more accurately, we are all confident that we know what they do, and most importantly, we are all quite sure we know what it takes to be one of them.

What about engineering? Apart from us, the engineers, and a few other concerned individuals, noone knows why we are called engineers, noone has ever seen us going about our work, and noone can say with certainty that we are part of the community. Us and our work are completely hidden away from the public. Yet the results of our work are all out there, yet they don’t bear our names.

Engineering is where it is because for the past 200 years, our society has been fighting hard to put it into the shadows. Is this a preposterous proposition? Not really. Just consider 17th and 18 century Britain. The crafts industry was big. Creativity and innovation were the hallmark of the day. You didn’t have to have deep knowledge of mathematics and physics to develop the capability of looking at the societal problems of the day and proposing solutions – be it proposing designs for bridges, developing more efficient methods for smelting iron and producing steel, designing faster and bigger ships, or developing machines to take over the back-breaking work in the fields and in the cotton mills.

All you needed was the desire to make things better, the willingness and grit to try out ideas until you achieved your goal, and the support of friends and family who would engage with you in surprisingly technical conversations at the kitchen table. Out of all this collective enterprise at creativity came the industrial revolution, and out of it came the unimaginable wealth and power that turned Britain into a world power.

Then along the way, as the industrial age took pace, the generation of ideas and innovation became relegated to the workplace where a few people, men mostly, assumed responsibility for this task. This was such that by the middle of the twentieth century, creative tasks like design and problem solving had been taken away from the general public. In their place, the public were sold the idea that engineering was not for everyone. It was for the geeky elite who thrived on stomach-churning mathematical theories and obscure, unfathomable physics texts.

Goods now came packaged and ready to use, and they bore the names of faceless companies; even essential services were now carried out by faceless companies. Telecommunications, television, radio, the Internet, Wi-Fi, all the wonders of modern day life now all reach the home bearing the name of some large company. The names of the individuals who brought these things to life are nowhere to be seen.

Even our beloved Jaguar, we don’t hear anything about the men and women who passioantely spend their lives making that great British icon better and better. Its just Jaguar, just Land Rover, no person’s name, nothing, as if all these iconic symbols of British innovation and creativity are being produced by some non-human demi-god.

Today everyone now realises that we were sold a lie. Engineering is not for the few. It’s for everyone. Think of the early days of aviation engineering. Everyone wanted to solve the problem of flight, from eminent professors, practising lawyers, peasant farmers and labourers. And the two people who conclusively solved the problem were the Wright brothers, – who, incidentally, were basically young, poorly educated brothers who repaired and made bicycles for a living. Their success was in part down to their perseverance, as well as being the natural outcome of the intense debates and conversations on flight which were taking place at the time.

Here in the UK we have designated 2018 the year of Engineering. Government departments, the business sector, engineering institutions and the universities are all involved. Our goal is to bring engineering to the community. My sincere hope is that we won’t just focus on awareness. I would urge everyone involved to learn from football, our so called beautiful game. Come Saturday, we are all glued on radio and television, listening and watching top flight football. In between we argue about who is the best player, coach or referee, and we passionately offer our advice on who should be taken off the field, and which manager should be fired. In between this, we practise our own game, and we play competitively against other local teams. Football is a passion for the whole community, and we engage with it at all levels. Noone is shut out, and this should be our aim all this year – simply this, to re-engage society with engineering, and to stoke once again that spirit of creativity and innovation that only engineering can bring out.

Developing Independent Learners: Not a Task for the Faint-hearted

The majority of students entering university are not used to being independent learners. They expect lecturers to give them all they need to know. When faced with coursework material that goes beyond the lecture material, their typical response is something like : “We haven’t been taught this  material. Show us how to do it!”  In almost every case, it’s  a demand, and not a polite request.

To be fair, it’s not their fault. Prior to coming to university they have been given everything they need to know for the exams.  And it’s not the fault of the teachers either – schools are under ever-increasing pressure to produce students with the highest possible grades for entry into the top universities. Governments expect and demand this, and both parents and students have been led to believe that it’s the student’s inalienable right.

How then should the lecturer of first year  students deal with this? The lecturer can choose to ignore the requests from the students, and simply let them get on with it. But this is not helpful. Students can easily interpret this as an act of neglect on the part of the lecturer, and they can get militant. This is especially so in these days when teaching and learning is increasingly viewed as a commercial transaction – “I pay the fees, you teach me (or,  more accurately, “you give me”) all  I need to know”.

An easier approach would be to just give in to the students and leave some other lecturer to impart independent learning skills in their own  course module. This sounds like cowardice, but it isn’t. I have received overtly threatening  e-mails from colleagues who ought to know better: “I had a meeting with my tuttees yesterday. They tell me that in your last coursework you assessed them on material that  you had not covered in lectures. This is clearly not acceptable.” For better effect, some colleagues routinely copy in the Director of Education and the Head of Department.

Even more ominously, a senior academic can accost  you in the corridor and declare “This is against university regulations. You seriously ought to reconsider your position.” In these days of academic league tables, this can amount to a direct threat to your continued existence at the university, particularly if you are on a fixed-term or temporary contract.

Of course, there is nowhere in the university regulations where this is written. To the contrary, university management expect  all academics to impart independent learning skills in their day-to-day teaching. However, faced with student demands, colleagues can conveniently forget that in the last programme  review meeting, alongside everyone else, they were vehemently  expressing concern at the lack of independent study and learning skills exhibited by students progressing from the first year.

So how then can you impart independent learning skills in the face of hostility from students and fellow academics alike? Here is my answer: Adopt the Socratic method when dealing with student queries. Wikipedia defines the Socratic Method as a way of “asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.”

It’ is not that difficult to put the Socratic method into practice. All you need to do is to start from the known lecture material, and then lead the student on a journey of self-discovery using a series of guiding questions. In my own experience, students end up appreciating this. More often than not, students end up adopting the same questioning style when faced with unfamiliar questions. And that’s a powerful foundation for self-directed learning.

Here  is a recent example from my own experience. It is an excerpt from a recent email exchange I had with a student:

Student: Quite a few of my course colleagues and myself are confused regarding question 1ai) of the current coursework. The question tells us to obtain mathematical expressions that model the velocity, acceleration and distance of the space vehicle based on the data given in the table below. Are these supposed to be best-fit equations based on the whole time period or separate expressions for each individual time segment? I hope you can clarify this issue.

Abel: Let’s start from this point: How do you plan to come up with the best fit equations?

Student: I could plot the data and then use the basic fitting tool to find the equation. However, that would be quite inaccurate. But then if we are to find an expression for each segment, are we to assume a linear relationship between each point? This also seems quite imprecise as the acceleration of the vehicle does not seem to change at a constant rate.

Abel: Part 1 is correct: Which type of equation would describe the graph that best fits the data – a linear equation, a second degree (quadratic) equation, a third degree equation  or some other equation?

Student: The graph for velocity and distance seem to follow a quadratic path but acceleration – a cubic. Would such an expression determined using this method be correct?

Abel: For the velocity, which is more accurate –  linear, quadratic or cubic, and how are you evaluating this?

Student: On closer inspection cubic does seem more accurate, as the residuals are much smaller.

Abel: So which equation should you use for the velocity profile, then quadratic or cubic? And if you know the velocity equation, how can you obtain the acceleration equation and distance equation from this, and why?

Student: I should use the cubic equation because it’s much more precise. Then I can derive the mathematical expressions for acceleration and distance using differentiation/integration as this will provide a clearer answer than using a basic fit for those.

Abel: Looks like you have provided a very detailed answer to your query. Do you still have another question/query?

Student:  Thank you very much for your guidance and your quick responses. Goodnight.



The UCL Integrated Engineering Programme: A Very Brief Guide


What is the Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP)?

An Engineering Education curriculum structure that is specifically designed to facilitate interdisciplinary learning across various engineering disciplines by providing connecting activities between the different disciplines. In so doing it provides opportunities for students from different engineering disciplines to work collaboratively on real-life practical engineering problems.

What is the philosophy underpinning the Integrated Engineering Programme?

The Integrated Engineering Programme is based on the premise that in order to solve the emerging interdisciplinary engineering problems of the 21st century, the engineering graduate of today must have a strong theoretical and practical foundation in any of the current engineering disciplines, coupled with an ability to work in multi-disciplinary teams on interdisciplinary problems. Such skills should be simultaneously and methodically developed throughout the student journey from novice to graduate engineer.

How is the Integrated Engineering Programme structured?

Students enrol for their engineering studies in their chosen disciplines such as Biomedical, Biochemical, Chemical, Civil, Electronic and Electrical, Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science. From the first week of their university studies, and at regular intervals throughout the programme, students engage in team-based projects within their own disciplines and across the departments.

These projects include two cross-disciplinary team-based projects drawn from the key global challenges such as sustainable energy and global health. These two challenges are followed by regular one-week intensive, disciplinary design projects during the second half of the first year and second year known as scenarios.

At the end of the second year students undertake an intensive two-week interdisciplinary challenge, again drawn from key global challenges.  In the final year/years, programmes include a major design/research project. Overall, project-based activities constitute approximately 25% of the curriculum.

The UCL IEP Structure

(Copyright: UCL Faculty of Engineering Science)

What are the benefits of the Integrated Engineering Programme to the student?

The IEP offers students the opportunity to engage in real design and practical engineering experiences throughout their studies. In this way they acquire the necessary professional and interdisciplinary skills that they need to be effective engineers.  For instance, by the end of their second year, students will have taken part in at least 9 real-world engineering projects.


On 1st November 2017 the Higher Education Academy (HEA) recognised the UCL Faculty of Engineering Science by declaring them as one of the six winners of the 2017 HEA Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE). See details of the HEA announcement here, and detail of the team submission here.

For more indepth Information:

For a more detailed overview of the Integrated Engineering Programme, read the project paper presented at the IEEE EDUCON 2015 Engineering Education Conference: Work in progress: Multi-disciplinary curriculum review of engineering education. UCL’s integrated engineering programme.

For a detailed description of the early implementation of scenarios in  UCL Civil and Environmental Engineering programmes,  see the article published in the 2010 European Journal of Engineering Education  Vol 35, Issue 3: Student experience of a scenario-centred curriculum

For a detailed description and evaluation of the cornerstone Engineering Design first year module of the Integrated Engineering Programme, see the paper presented at the 5th IEEE Integrated STEM Education Conference 2015: Sense of achievement: Initial evaluation of an Integrated Engineering Design cornerstone module

Africa: The case for engineering curriculum transformation


Sub-Saharan Africa is currently experiencing one of the most rapid economic growth in the world. However, unlike economic growth elsewhere,  this economic growth is not matched by a corresponding reduction in poverty (Filler 2014). Youth unemployment, and underemployment, remains high, and in a region where the youth constitute over 50% of the population, this is being viewed by policy planners as a ticking time-bomb. The main reason for this is that economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is primarily driven by minerals and commodities, both of which are essentially extractive processes that only require a low level of technical skill. To begin to move Sub-Saharan Africa out of its current levels of poverty to prosperity, significant investment need to be made in the manufacturing sector. This calls for relevant and up to date engineering skills.

Failure of Engineering Education in Sub Sharan Africa

An investigation by the World Bank has found that Sub-Saharan Africa  is simultaneously experiencing  both a shortage of skilled and experienced engineers, and severe unemployment for graduate engineers (Mohamedbhai 2014). This scenario is leading to a shortage of  engineering skills that is so severe that it has become a major constraint to economic growth in the region.  The main reason for university graduates failing to secure meaningful jobs within engineering is that they lack the necessary skills and experience to be employable. These graduates often end up  severely underemployed in non-graduate roles in both the formal and informal economic sector, and they are unlikely to ever  secure proper engineering roles over their lifetimes. Given that university programmes are often three or four years long, this constitutes a severe waste in terms of human and economic resources.

Why Engineering programmes are failing students and national economies

There are several reasons why university engineering programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa are failing. This includes a severe lack of funding, a shortage of  experienced  academics that is compounded by high staff turnover, and a lack of innovation in approaches to learning and teaching (Mohamedbhai 2014).  Whilst there have been some attempts to introduce student-focussed, active learning methods such as problem based learning in recent years, an engineering student in Sub-Saharan Africa is most likely to go through a content-led, teacher-focussed programme delivered by a relatively inexperienced academic team who primarily deliver their teaching in pretty much the same way they were taught during their student days. This is usually the deductive teaching approach that is characterised by a first year  that focusses on basic mathematics and science, followed by engineering fundamentals in Years 2 and 3, and ending with a focus on  realistic engineering problems and engineering practice in the final year project. Such an approach is theory-heavy and lacking in adequate  student-exposure to engineering practice.

Comparison with 19th century engineering education

Current engineering education practice merits comparison with engineering education in the period 1750 to 1850 when  advances in engineering took the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world,  from an agrarian economy to the industrial age. Then, the primary mode of engineering education was through apprenticeships, with prospective engineers learning their trade  from experienced practitioners. Not only that, ambitious engineers made efforts to progress their own learning by enrolling at the emerging engineering schools across Europe, as was the case with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man who played an important role in advancing the knowledge and practice of railway engineering, bridge building, tunnel construction  and ship building.  In addition, practising engineers also got together to form the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1818 with the primary goal of enabling them to share and advance their knowledge of engineering.

Of Isambard Brunel, it has been said that he was technically astute to the point of being ingenious, extremely bold in championing his ideas, and imbued with consummate communication skills that enabled him to seek and secure funding for his projects (Peters 2011). In short, Isambard Brunel was the technopreneur par excellence.  Passive learning, as experienced by students learning engineering via a deductive process, can never achieve these technical and entrepreneurial skills.

An alternative to deductive engineering education

Teaching-focussed, deductive teaching methods focus primarily on imparting theoretical content to students and offer little opportunities for them to put that knowledge into application. This is incontrast to the recommendations made by UNESCO in 1996 that an effective education should be guided by the following principles:

  • 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.

Active learning methods, such as the design-based Integrated Engineering Programme developed at University College London (Bains et al. 2014), are specifically designed to achieve all of the four UNESCO principles. In such approaches, students are introduced and taught engineering skills (learning to know), and, beginning from the first year of engineering studies, they learn to put this knowledge into practice (learning to do). Most of their learning is team-based, and is aimed at using engineering knowledge to solve problems and challenges within industry and within the communities that they live in (learning to live together). As the students progress from the first year to the final graduation year, they progressively transform into practising engineers with a sufficient theoretical and skills base that enable them to be immediately useful in engineering upon graduation (learning to be).

A connected approach to engineering education

Universities all over the world have often been labelled as ivory towers. This moniker signifies their isolation and aloofness from the real world.  However, the type of learning advocated by active learning methods can not take place in isolation. Students have to connect their learning to the real world, and they have to connect the knowledge that they are acquiring to the emerging knowledge in their fields by staying in touch with the current research in their disciplines.  In addition, students have to develop an awareness of developments in other related disciplinary areas by maintaining links with students,  practitioners and other knowledge sources in different, but relevant, disciplines.  A curriculum that facilitates all these links is referred to as a connected curriculum, and it enables students to acquire relevant theoretical knowledge whilst increasing their own relevance to their own professions (Fung  2017).  At a minimum, for an engineering school to develop an effective connected curriculum, they must engage collaboratively with industry, and with the local community, which, for Sub Saharan Africa, means engaging with the ubiquitous informal sector as well.

Working collaboratively with industry

Szirmai, et al (2013) argue that it is time that Sub Saharan Africa view the education system “not merely as a supplier of appropriately schooled labour, but as an integral part of the national innovation system.”  Such an approach would require educational institutions, public research organizations and productive firms to interact with each other at all levels. As expected , within the engineering context, this would involve more students gaining opportunities for internship with local companies. In addition to this, however, industry should play an active role in  the development and delivery of the engineering curriculum. Given the shortage of academics with relevant practical experience, industry should contribute to skills development by enabling their own engineers to  partner with university academics  in developing and delivering teaching. For instance, practising engineers could develop practice-based, realistic, engineering problem sets that are based on current industrial practice, and also contribute to project supervision as well.  Where problem based learning is used, the increased opportunities for interaction between students and the experienced, practising engineers enable students to improve their skills in engineering practice.

Acting as knowledge and skills hubs for the informal sector

The private sector in most African economies is dominated by small and micro firms, most of which are in the informal sector (Szirmai, et al 2013).  These micro firms often lack the capital and the skills to develop into full-fledged firms that offer reliable and sustainable employment opportunities. Universities could step into this gap by providing these firms with the necessary skills and knowledge. This could involve academics and students working with these firms to address the problems that the firms are experiencing. For instance, students can look at production processes  within a firm, and propose technological solutions that make production processes more efficient and cost-effective.  In this way students learn to apply their knowledge to real-life situations, thus preparing them for their own careers. Importantly, as well, students learn to be entrepreneurial, and by the time they finish their studies they will be better prepared to set up their own ventures, or be in a position to take up roles within aspirational firms in the informal sector, thereby making it possible for these firms to grow and eventually become part of the country’s formal sector.


Bains, S.,  Mitchell, J.E., Nyamapfene, A. and Tilley, E. (2014). Work in progress: Multi-displinary curriculum review of engineering education. UCL’s integrated engineering programme. Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON), 2015 IEEE, 844 – 846

Filmer, Deon; Fox, Louise. 2014. Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa. Africa Development Forum;. Washington, DC: World Bank and Agence Française de Développement.

Fung, D. (2017). A connected curriculum for Higher Education. UCL Press. Available at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/a-connected-curriculum-for-higher-education

Mohamedbhai, G. (2014). Improving the Quality of Engineering Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: World Bank Report

Peters, R.G. (2011). Brunel: ‘The Practical Prophet’. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/brunel_isambard_01.shtml

Szirmai, A., Gebreeyesus, M., Guadagno, F. and Verspagen,B. (2013) ‘Promoting productive employment in sub-Saharan Africa. A review of the literature’, UNUMERIT
Working Paper 2013-062.

UNESCO.(1996). Learning: The treasure within. UNESCO Publishing, Paris.

Implementing PBL in a Sunday School

This summer I did something I have never done before – training Sunday School teachers in problem based learning (PBL). It was frightening, exhilarating, and ultimately very enlightening.

The church in question, based in South London, was keen to engage their children in creative learning and problem solving. They wanted their children to provide creative insights on how to do church in a modern-day metropolis like London and still stay true to the church’s mission. They also wanted their children to think creatively about using everyday technologies such as smart phones and social media to develop novel solutions to issues faced by the local community.

The church draws its congregation from various walks of life. Within the congregation there are engineers, medical doctors, nurses, social workers, people working in security, retail workers, primary and secondary school teachers, refugees, as well as those who are now retired. The church leadership was keen to find a way for this diverse skill set to be channelled appropriately to the children. They had heard of PBL, and I happened to be  available to identify and train  a core team of Sunday School teachers.

Training consisted of a Saturday afternoon in which I went over the key elements of problem based learning and team-based learning. After the talk, I organised the participants into 4 groups of six people each, and gave them exercises to work on. At any one time two of the participants  served as facilitators, with the remaining four being the students. The teams rotated roles every  20 minutes, so that  by the end of one hour everyone had had a turn at being a facilitator and at being a student. 

Most of the participants had never engaged in PBL before. They could teach, but they were unfamiliar with the coaching approach that is inherent to PBL. However, by the end of the day they felt comfortable enough to put their newly acquired skills into practice.

At the end of the training session the participants identified several topics that they would assign to the Sunday School children over the following five weeks. There were roughly sixty children, 20  of whom came to the Sunday morning service, with the rest coming in the afternoon service. Their ages ranged from five to twelve, and girls outnumbered boys two to one. The Sunday School teachers were to deliver all aspects of PBL and I stayed on hand as a consultant.

The first day of Sunday  School is a day to remember. Simply put, it was a day mired in confusion. The children expected the normal teacher-led learning, and when let loose ala PBL, they were unsure of what to do, when to talk, when to take leadership and when and how to engage with their fellow group members. They were used to being told: “Sunday School! No talking.” Now they were being asked to talk and to walk around the group table freely. They simply froze, and faced with this situation, most of the teachers lost their confidence, and their newly acquired Socratic teaching approach fizzled out.

Traditionally, the teachers were used to taking control, to being the sage in front of the children. Now they were on the side lines, so to speak, prodding the children, listening to their ideas, and unleashing them to take charge of their learning. And to make matters worse, the children appeared to know more about current technology than the teachers. This was very unsettling for both teachers and children. 

Sometimes when the children appeared to get stuck, it was very tempting for some teachers to step in and literally take over the project.  Moments of silence suddenly proved to be very frightening for both the taught, and the teachers. My challenge therefore was to restrain the teachers so that they remained in their coaching/advisory roles, as opposed to being teacher-sages.

All in all, it turned out to be a useful six-week period for everyone. The children came up with very insightful ideas on the use of technology in church life. Just as we tend to do in university, it turned out that we grossly underestimate children’s creative and technical abilities. Following this six-week immersion in PBL, I’m now sympathetic to the idea that current approaches to teaching have done more to destroy individual creativity and innovation than any other process that humanity has discovered.

Importantly, this six-week period has stimulated a desire to learn and master current technologies. For instance, as a direct result of this, a group of girls and women have come together to form their own coding club. They range in age from 10 years to 45 years. Some hold degrees, some don’t.  Some are still in school, whilst for some, school is now only a distant memory. 

Regardless of their personal circumstances, they share one objective, namely to be masters if The technologies that now underpin modern life and commerce. They are undaunted by The task at hand. The less able will learn from the more able, and the more able will be spurred on by their desire to impart their knowledge to others. Together they will conquer the once-impossible, and together they will change their world.

So, all in all, this has been a very fruitful summer for me. And the church leadership are confidently projecting that within the next few years this could lead to several techie start-ups being incubated in the church. They call it prophecy, and as for me, all I can say is “Why not?”

Arthur Mutambara: An Image of the 21st Century Engineer?

Who is Mutambara? What does he stand for, and why is it that a growing body of engineering academics are increasingly looking beyond his political activism to finding inspiration in his ideas? This is what I set out to explore in this article.

Mutambara: a brief biography

Over a relatively short period of fifty years, Arthur Mutambara has quickly risen from being an obscure orphan eking out an existence in a remote village in rural Eastern Zimbabwe to becoming an African household name who regularly hobnobs with the great and might of this world.

Mutambara is clearly an enigmatic character who is seemingly involved in a wide range of human activity, and who is achieving success after success in everything that he puts his hands and mind to. He is a noted academic who has achieved academic distinction and recognition in every institution that he has attended, including the august University of Oxford, where he was awarded a PhD in a little over two and a half years. Following Oxford, he embarked on an academic career that saw him achieving success as a noted researcher in the field of robotics, and as the author of two academic tomes aimed at undergraduate engineering students.

Not only that, Mutambara also achieved fame, or notoriety, depending on how you look at it, as a student and social activist. During his young life, he struck fear and awe in the hearts of academic administrators, and at the height of his fame, or notoriety, he sent shivers down the spines of Zimbabwean government ministers. At the turn of the century, he cut short a clearly successful career in the USA as an engineering academic, and rushed home to grapple with the political instability in Zimbabwe.  Alongside other activist opposition politicians, he successfully arm-twisted an unwilling and politically entrenched Robert Mugabe to share power with them for about four years. Now he has moved on, and is now a revered business person and thought leader with a global presence.

Mutambara’s vision of society and technology

In his own autobiography, entitled “In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream”, Mutambara describes himself as a person who is driven by a burning desire “to change the world by igniting citizen activism through ideas.” He also paints himself as a person who is committed to “pursuing the ambitious vision of the African dream, characterised by a peaceful, stable, integrated, democratic, technology-driven, industrial, and economically prosperous continent.”

Mutambara’s vision closely chimes in with the emerging vision of the kind of person who should be embarking on an engineering career. Previously, the emphasis of engineering schools was to recruit students who were competent in mathematics and the sciences. Similarly, the engineering curriculum focussed almost exclusively on engineering science and technology. Now the focus of engineering schools is on recruiting students who desire to use their knowledge of engineering to make a difference in the world. These students have an innovative and entrepreneurial flair, and they look to engineering as an intellectual and practical tool that one needs to change the world for the better. Even the approach to engineering education is changing – a greater amount of time is now being spent on applying engineering knowledge to resolving socio-economic issues. In most of the forward-thinking engineering schools, students are learning to apply engineering know-how to problem solving right from day one in university. For example, at UCL Engineering we have adopted the following motto “To change the world you need to be taught differently.”

The ideal student – according to Mutambara

Mutambara believes that students should simultaneously seek to attain academic excellence, and to engage in addressing social issues. In his world-view, academic excellence alone in today’s world is not enough. Similarly engaging in social activism whilst neglecting academic studies is clearly unacceptable. In his own student days, amongst other things, Mutambara successfully organised a graduate employment drive which brought together the university student body, the university, government, industry and business to address the critical problem of graduate unemployment that was then emerging. Thirty years later, this collaboration between students, universities, government and industry is now a common feature of progressive higher education.

Mutambara also believes that students should be authors of their own academic destiny. In addition to attending standard engineering courses, Mutambara took an active interest in other disciplines, notably business, sociology, philosophy and politics. Nowadays, forward-thinking schools of engineering are engaging students in curriculum development. For instance, at Olin College of Engineering, students were actively involved in the design of the college’s curriculum. Another recently inaugurated university, the New Model in Technology and Engineering, based in the UK, has adopted this approach. In my own school at UCL, we believe that it’s never too early for students to contribute to their own learning and to the development of the engineering school.

What it means to be an engineer in this century

There is a general perception that since the end of the Second World War, the main goal of engineering education has been to provide engineers for life-time steady jobs in industry. Technological developments, coupled with the pace at which technological innovations are taking place, has changed all that. National economies, business organisations, and individuals now need to be nimble and agile to survive. This means that innovation, creativity and social awareness are now critical engineering attributes.

Mutambara, as a committed “21st century Pan Africanist” strongly believes that Africa should strategically position itself for this brave new world by investing in technology. This includes investing in more effective technological education curricula, and putting in place technological policies and strategies that take into account the African situation. In short, Africa needs technologically aware individuals with the skills to adapt emerging technologies to African conditions. Run-of-the-mill engineering graduates destined for outdated factories are clearly not the answer. It’s the time for the 21st century engineer, one who is technologically nimble and yet sensitive to the existing socio-economic environment.

Mutambara’s future legacy: an educated guess

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Wright brothers achieved fame by being the first to successfully build and fly a fixed-wing, heavier-than-air aircraft. They were amongst a slew of aviators who developed and experimented with flying machines. However, their lasting legacy was more obscure, and much more important, namely the development and demonstration of the flight control mechanism which is still in use today. Likewise, Mutambara has achieved much, and given his boundless energy and intellectual ability, he is destined to achieve much more. However, it is much more likely that his lasting legacy will be his contribution to the transformation of engineering and technological education. This is what Africa and the whole world are crying out for, and the erstwhile student-activist-cum-politician is very well positioned to take the lead in this regard.

Team-based PBL in Engineering Mathematics at REES2017 Bogota: Personal reflections


First and second year courses in engineering mathematics are primarily used to develop student skills in key mathematical concepts and skills that underpin the study of higher level discipline-specific course modules. However, whilst students often become expert at solving mathematical problems, they are often unable to apply the mathematical concepts that they have learnt to other areas of their studies. This often necessitates lecturers of higher level modules to revisit essential mathematical concepts before moving on to teaching the intended subject matter. A primary cause of this failure is the separation of mathematical theory from engineering application in early-stage engineering course modules. Two papers presented at REES2017 discussed how problem-based learning has enabled two institutions to address this problem, and in this blog I review both papers.

Exploring Differential Equations through Group Projects

In the first paper, entitled Student Engagement in Assessment through Group Work in a Mathematics Course for Bioengineers, Carrere and her colleagues explored the use of group work in enhancing understanding of mathematical concepts in a second year Bioengineering undergraduate course on differential equations.

Carrere and her colleagues redesigned the course on differential equations to include two group projects in which students were expected to explore the application of material covered in the course to the theory and practice of Bioengineering.  The course runs over an entire semester, and its content includes topics such as Ordinary Differential Equations (ODEs), Linear and non-linear ODE systems, Fourier series, and partial differential equations (PDEs).

Course objectives

The objectives of the course were to enable students to:

  • Identify, formulate and solve problems
  • Use technological resources effectively
  • Work effectively in teams
  • Communicate effectively
  • Act with ethics and professional responsibility
  • Learn in a continuous and autonomous way, and carry out self-assessment.

Structure and implementation of the Group Projects

Students self-selected themselves into groups of three and were assigned problem sets that required them to use differential equations to model and analyse mechanical and electrical systems that underpin the study and practice of Bioengineering. Students carried out the study over a series of workshops in which lecturers were present to offer guidance and appropriate scaffolding at each stage of the analysis and modelling process.

The teaching team incorporated student peer assessment and self-assessment to identify and discourage non-participation and free-riding.  Students were also involved in developing the assessment criteria. In this way students had ownership of the whole learning process.

Assessment of the group project outcomes

In my opinion, this course achieved multiple objectives that are important to the development of engineering education. First, the course succeeded in linking the theory covered in engineering mathematics to engineering-specific courses that are covered in other study modules. Secondly, the team projects gave the students an opportunity to use software to model and simulate the mathematical concepts that were covered in class. In this way, they learnt how to put their knowledge of mathematics into practical use, something that is often difficult for engineering students taught and assessed in traditional ways. Third, the students were actively involved in the design of assessment criteria and in the assessment of their own work through peer assessment and self-assessment. This study suggests that involving students in all aspects of assessment helps them to reflect on the course objectives and encourages them to focus on the key learning goals of the course.

Bridging the gap between first year mathematics and Engineering disciplines

In the second paper, entitled Teaching mathematics in engineering careers: A permanent challenge, Gemignani and her colleagues reported on their efforts to align the teaching of first year mathematics to material covered in higher level discipline-specific courses at the Universidad Tecnológica Nacional, Argentina.  In their institution, first year engineering mathematics is covered in two course modules, namely Mathematical Analysis 1 (MA 1) and Algebra and Analytical Geometry (A&AG). Gemignani and her colleagues successfully developed two group projects that drew on material covered in these two modules.

Learning objectives of the two inter-module projects

The learning objectives of these two group projects were to enable first year engineering students to:

  • Use their mathematical knowledge to identify and solve problems in the professional context
  • Be aware of their own learning process and to develop self-directed learning abilities
  • Develop critical thinking skills
  • Develop peer assessment and self-assessment skills
  • Use contextual applications to motivate and reinforce their knowledge of mathematics

Structure and implementation of the inter-module Group Projects

Lecturers on the two modules collaborated in developing a set of exercises drawn from professional practice. These exercises were deliberately pitched at a level of complexity and difficulty  to make it almost impossible for students to solve them simply by applying the manual mathematical processes covered in the two modules.  In addition, each individual problem set required students to identify a series of mathematical concepts that they would need to come up with acceptable solutions.

Students also needed to acquire some programming skills in Mathematica to enable them to analyse and model the given problems. These were provided through additional lectures on Mathematica that ran alongside the project timeframe. These lectures covered both Mathematica instructions as well as their application to mathematical problem solving.

To prepare students for these projects, the two modules were redesigned to allow the teaching of both mathematical theory and applications to engineering problems. This was done by ensuring that in both course modules, one lecturer was assigned to teach mathematical theory and another assigned to teach applications of mathematics to engineering.

Assessment evaluated both the overall group performance as well as individual student contribution. Specifically, individual students were evaluated on their ability to generate and propose new ideas throughout the project, their fluency and clarity in communicating these ideas, as well as their team participation and interpersonal communication skills.

Evaluation of the inter-module group projects

In end-of-course surveys, the majority of students found the inter-module projects to be very beneficial to their engineering studies. They especially appreciated the fact that the two inter-module group projects helped them to develop their ability to apply mathematics to solving engineering problems.

Students also appreciated the fact that the group projects gave them the opportunity to solve problematic situations similar to those they may have to face in their future professional lives. It’s noteworthy to observe that in most traditional approaches to engineering education, practical applications are often left out to the latter stages of degree programmes. This often leads to motivational and persistence problems in engineering.

Lecturers of higher level course odules also reported that student cohorts who had done the inter-module group projects had better Mathematica programming skills and they also demonstrated a deeper understanding of mathematics compared to previous cohorts.

Another problem with current undergraduate teaching is that the curriculum is chunked into individual modules. This often leads to students failing to identify the connections between these myriad individual modules, leading to a disjointed student experience. This study shows that this problem can be addressed by introducing module-bridging projects that give the students the opportunity to apply all their learning to the resolution of a given real-life engineering problem.

Concluding Remarks

These two studies suggest that the group project can be a valuable learning construct in engineering mathematics. They also suggest that if engineering mathematics modules are to be effective, then they should not be viewed simply as tools for teaching mathematics theory for its own sake. Rather, academcis in engineering departments should collaboratively work together to develop learning environments where students can experiment and visualise the application of mathematical theory to their own disciplines. As the two studies point out, this helps engineering students to link mathematics theory to studies in their own disciplines, which in turn helps to keep the students motivated, especially in the critical early stages of their degree programmes.


Carrere L Carolina, Ilardo Juan, Ruiz Joaquín V, Iván Lapyckyj, Escher Leandro, Waigandt, Diana (2016). Student Engagement in Assessment through Group Work in a Mathematics Course for Bioengineers. REES 2017: The 7th Research in Engineering Education Symposium 2017 6-8 July 2017, Bogota, Colombia.

Gemignani, María Alicia & Gandulfo, María Itatí (2016). Teaching mathematics in engineering careers: A permanent challenge. REES 2017: The 7th Research in Engineering Education Symposium 2017 6-8 July 2017, Bogota, Colombia.

The 2017 TEF Results: Turmoil in UK higher education

We all knew that the TEF results would send shock waves throughout the UK HE landscape, but most of us were unprepared for the ferocity and level of intensity of their impact.  In the days leading up to Thursday June 22nd, the day when the results were released, rank and file academics had mostly written off the TEF as just one of those “mickey-mouse league tables” that currently litter the higher education columns in our tabloids. If our academic leaders thought otherwise, then I must say they were very good at concealing a burning secret, for that’s what the TEF turned out to be, a scorching inferno that has turned UK HE upside down.

The UK higher education hierarchy under the spotlight

In their wake, the TEF results have shattered our perceptions of the traditional hierarchy of UK higher education. First, received wisdom was that the less research intensive and more teaching-focussed universities would excel, and the research giants would justify their respectability by positioning themselves in the middle, or towards the end of the TEF rankings. After all, the majority of current teaching league tables, whether by design or default, invariably rank UK HE institutions inversely to their position on the hugely respected university world rankings. If that had been the case, then we would have easily consigned the TEF to the dustbin by simply asking: “Just tell me of any one world-class university in the top TEF rankings!”  The first bombshell was that this was far from the case. Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial got Golds in the TEF, and we all looked up. Ask anyone in the world to name three top universities, and chances are that they will name these three universities, even if they cannot point to the position of the UK on Google Maps. So the first myth of UK HE was debunked –  if Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial have TEF Gold, then TEF matters, and if TEF matters, then teaching matters, and if teaching matters, then the TEF is here to stay.

There are over 150 universities and higher education institutions in the UK, but until Thursday 22nd June, it was simple for anyone to distinguish between them using this principle: there are universities, and then there are real universities. If you go down to the pub, the simple question “Which university did you go to?” is not as innocent as it looks.  In the public eye, if you went to a prestigious research intensive university, in particular a Russell Group university, then you went to a real university, otherwise you didn’t.  Again, by 10 am on Thursday 22nd June, this myth was in the dustbin. It is no longer enough for an institution to be in the Russell Group. Whilst Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial got Gold, a huge number of Russell Group universities got Silver, and some household names, notably Liverpool and Southampton, found themselves with Bronze.

What it really means to be Gold, Silver or Bronze

In the public eye Gold means excellent, Silver means not so excellent, and Bronze is equivalent to the skull-and-crossbones symbol signifying danger, caution, risk or something to that effect. So immediately, the TEF has given us a simple and powerful, albeit crude, system for evaluating universities – is it Gold, Silver or Bronze? Of course this has been derived on the basis of teaching and the student experience, but that’s not the message that is conveyed. In the public eye, if an institution is Gold, then it’s excellent in teaching, and it’s excellent in research, and it’s excellent in everything that you may be looking for in a university. Conversely, if an institution is Bronze, then it is bronze in everything, it’s that simple.

For university management, being Gold means classes will be full, university teaching revenues will overflow, gold-class academics, whether teaching or research focussed, will be easier to attract, graduate recruiters will besiege the university, grateful alumni will engage more with the university, and more revenue streams wil lbe opened up.  For graduates, a TEF Gold also has immense benefits. First, they will have a significant advantage over their non-Gold competitors, and this is despite any individual shortcomings that they might have. And in the long run, they are likely to go higher up the career ladder, for, after all, which well-meaning organisation would consciously pass up the opportunity of enhancing their individual reputation through association with a Gold-class university?  Having Gold-class employees in your organisation is a powerful marketing tool, whatever their actual productivity.

Conversely being labelled Bronze is likely to be the equivalent of an institution catching a contagious disease. Employers, potential students, and potential research  and teaching partners will take flight. This is likelty to lead to a fall in revenues, loss of staff morale, and a high staff-turnover as excellent academics flee.  If the instituion lacks a strong, responsive leadership, the Bronze label is likely to be self-fulfilling, and the institution will fall into a cess pool from which it may not come back.

TEF winners and losers

The past two days suggest that post-TEF, universities are likely to re-organise themselves into at least two camps – one camp for those extolling their teaching excellence on the back of their TEF awards, and the other camp for those crying foul. Included in the first camp is Portsmouth University, which placed a full page ad in the Guardian describing themselves as a university with a “Gold rating in Teaching Excellence”. Another one is the University of Exeter, who immediately set up an institutional web page proclaiming their newfound TEF Gold, with the inscription: “University of Exeter, Internationally Excellent Education.”

The other camp will consist mostly of those institutions that were awarded a Bronze. To date institutions belonging to this camp have been characterised either by their muted “no-comment” expressions, or  their very high visibility attacks on the TEF as a flawed and misdirected evaluation system.  See, for example, the sceptical comments by Sir Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, in the Times Higher Education.   However, what is noteworthy is that none of the Bronze institutions has declared that they will NEVER EVER participate in the TEF exercise again.  This is a tacit acceptance that the TEF is here to stay, and, I would add, a plea by institutions on the wrong end of the TEF exercise for leniency and protection from the resulting public glare.

Some institutions chose not to participate, some for noble reasons, and some for not so noble reasons. Either way, TEF refuseniks appear to have lost out. With so many institutions participating, a question that will refuse to go away is: “What are the refuseniks hiding?”  And so, by default, in the public eye, refuseniks are somewhere in the darker shades of the Bronze category, and that perception is likely to prove too difficult to dispel in the short to medium term.

When the TEF overshadows individual excellence

The TEF results has also had an impact on both individual academics and departments.  For instance, the Sociology department at the University of Westminster, which was awarded a Bronze, felt compelled to issue a corrective statement on their blog page. In their statement, they remind the students of the department’s excellent track record as measured by NSS scores, institutional and national awards for teaching excellence, and supportive comments from external examiners. The department concludes by expressing the view that “the outcome for Sociology at Westminster has been the direct opposite: the TEF result says, quite plainly, that we’re crap at our jobs.”  In fact, a number of tweets on the TEF results seem to suggest that most academics in Bronze institutions agree with their counterparts in the University of Westminster Sociology Department. Simone Buitendijk, Vice-Provost (Education) at Imperial College London, has had to step in to remind colleagues that the TEF is an institutional measure, and not a measure for individual performance: “Don’t forget: TEF measures system performance, not individual teachers’. I have no doubt that >95% of UK university teachers are Gold.”

The TEF and the quest for excellence in academic education leadership

In the May 2016 government white paper Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, the two main goals of the TEF are to “provide clear information to students about where the best provision can be found and to drive up the standard of teaching in all universities.” Given the nature and complexity of teaching, both objectives are likely to remain contested for the foreseeable future. However, what is indisputable is that the TEF has focussed attention on teaching at the institutional level. As Simone Buitendijk points out, the main focus of the TEF is on system performance, and not on individual teaching within he classroom, which is only a small part of the teaching delivery process. This has direct implications on the quality of leadership in teaching and learning, or as Dilly Fung and Claire Gordon like to refer to it, on academic education leadership.

TEF and the future of UK HE: A rollercoaster journey

In conclusion, whilst the TEF is likely to go through several iterations before it becomes acceptable across the entire UK HE landscape, one thing is certain:  The quality of education leadership is likely to become an important issue across the entire sector, in particular within the research intensive sector where education leadership roles are often undertaken on a non-substantive basis. Of significant interest, however, is the likely interplay between the TEF and the REF going forward. More specifically, will TEF counterbalance the impact of the REF on UK HE, and if so, what are the consequences on current and future academic careers? And most importantly, will TEF have a lasting impact on UK HE, or when the dust clears, will we settle back into our old way of doing university education?  Only time will tell.

Progression for Teaching Only Academics in Research Intensive Universities: A Personal Perspective


Although the teaching-only academic role has been around for the better part of this century, it is still far from general acceptance within universities. In particular, although most research intensive universities now have in place career routes for teaching-only academics there is still a definite hesitancy from key sectors of academia when it comes to promoting teaching-only academics. From my ongoing research on teaching-only academics within research intensive universities, some typical questions that heads of departments and other senior managers are grappling with include:

  • Is a professor promoted via the teaching route REALLY equivalent to a professor promoted on the basis of research?
  • Isn’t promotion via the teaching route an easier route than promotion via research?
  • What image do we present to other academics, to current and potential students, and to the wider outside world if we start promoting people on the basis of teaching?

These questions suggest a continued pre-occupation with research as a vehicle to achieving personal and institutional recognition and reward. Such views were reinforced and entrenched  by the  introduction of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in 1986, and its subsequent replacement by the Research Excellence Framework (REF) after 2008 (HEFCE 2012). However, with the recent passage of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, the higher education landscape is poised for change.

The Act paves the way for the set up of the Office for Students (OfS) next year. This body will have responsibility for regulating standards and quality of education as well as oversee the introduction of private sector competition in the higher education sector.  The Act also specifies the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which is now already being used to assess the quality of teaching across universities (Department for Education 2016). It is expected that after 2020, the tuition fees that institutions can charge will be linked directly to the outcome of the TEF. This is likely to have far reaching consequences given that tuition fees have largely replaced teaching grants as the primary source of teaching income in universities. The Act therefore brings teaching and learning in higher education to the fore in a very forceful manner. In this article I argue that it is no longer business as usual in universities, and university recognition and reward systems need to change to take into account the changes taking place.

The changing academic role

Traditionally, the academic role has been viewed as comprising two main activities, namely teaching and research. But this is no longer the case. In recent times academic work has rapidly diversified (Locke et al. 2016). Coates and Goedegebuure (2012) sum up the diverse roles of academics as follows:

Academics train a country’s professional cadre, conduct scholarly and applied research, build international linkages, collaborate with business and industry, run large knowledge enterprises (universities), mentor individuals, train the research and the academic workforce, boost social equity, contribute to the creative life of the nation, develop communities, and contribute to broader economic development. And this list could easily be expanded.(Coates and Goedegebuure 2012)

This proliferation in academic functions is a direct result of the many pressures that have been brought to bear on universities. These pressures include(Locke 2014):

  • the rapid expansion of higher education as more and more students opt to proceed from high school to university as opposed to going into work
  • the reduction of public funding, coupled with the transfer of most of the costs associated with higher education from government to individual students
  • increasing demands on universities from students, government and employers.

Despite the increasing diversity in academic activities and subsequent specialisation growing specialisation of academic role, policies and practices for promotion and recognition have failed to keep pace (Locke et al. 2016). For instance, across the higher education sector,  there is still a widely-held perception that the criteria for reward and recognition in universities is heavily skewed towards those academics in traditional research and teaching roles(Locke et al. 2016). In particular, research remains the main activity of choice for those seeking job security and career progression (Locke 2014). Even those academics primarily employed on teaching-only contracts still strive to keep up with their discipline-specific research even though this is not part of their job remit. Such an approach has the effect of increasing academic workloads and affecting academic performance in the roles that they are employed in (Locke et al. 2016).  It is therefore imperative that the recognition and reward structures in higher education need to change in line with changing academic work.

The Need for flexible promotion criteria for ALL academics

As the recent passage of the Higher Education Act 2017 clearly demonstrates, the modern day university now faces new challenges and expectations. To survive in this new environment, the modern university now needs to demonstrate excellence in a number of areas, and these areas are not necessarily compatible. First, to successfully attract research funding, and postgraduate students, the modern day university needs to present itself as a centre for research excellence. At the same time, the same institution has to position itself to students and to the outside world as a centre for excellence in education.

In addition, in compliance with the new Act, the institution has to be seen to be responsive to the needs of the community, for example, through having an effective widening participation programme, and supporting the local industry and economy. To achieve all this, the institution has to submit its institutional activities to external assessment and evaluation. In the UK this includes the Research Excellence Framework (REF) for evaluating research, the recently introduced Teaching Excellence Framework for evaluating teaching, the National Student Survey (NSS) for assessing the student experience, and the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) for assessing the employability of its graduates. It is also very telling that both the NSS and DLHE outcomes are being used as inputs to the TEF.

For an institution to excel in each of the above roles, it has to identify, retain and reward qualified individuals to carry out each of these the tasks. However, the potential for conflict and confusion arising out of attempting to satisfy all of the above performance evaluations cannot be underestimated. Brew et al. (2017) suggest that in the current university environment, academics are faced with  ambiguous and contradictory messages regarding the nature of their jobs and what is expected of them. This includes contradictory official accounts of academic work as well as contradictory messages from external stakeholders such as government.

It is therefore necessary for universities to develop clear, unambiguous recognition and reward systems that cover all forms of academic specialisation, including teaching-only academic roles. Not doing so will lead to a situation whereby the university system is, in the first instance, unable to attract and retain the “best and brightest” to join the profession, and in the second instance, unable to identify and reward the most productive for their work, and weed out those who are unsuited for academic work.(Altbach and Musselin 2008)

Obstacles to recognising and rewarding teaching and learning

Cashmore et al. (2013) identify two major obstacles standing in the way of effective reward and recognition of teaching in higher education. The first one is institutional culture. This is best illustrated by the fact that although most universities now have in place clear routes for promotion on the basis of learning and teaching, their effective implementation still seems to be lacking (ibid.).

Another obstacle to rewarding excellence in teaching is that, unlike research, teaching does not have a clearly defined, coherent and widely-used set of criteria for evaluating excellence (Cashmore et al. 2013).  Whilst the evaluation of research excellence is based primarily on publications and grant income, with teaching it is not as clearly cut. Compared to research, teaching encompasses a wide range of activities and roles, which means that a more diverse range of evidence is required to demonstrate excellence. In addition to this, such evidence is often qualitative in nature, thereby making it more difficult to assess excellence in teaching compared to research (Cashmore et al. 2013).

Emerging drivers for recognising and rewarding teaching and learning

Government concerns regarding the quality of university-level teaching is now an important contributory factor towards the recognition and reward of teaching-focussed academics. This started first as a “nudge” by government to higher education institutions. For instance, in 2003, government made the following observation in its white paper entitled “the future of higher education”  (Department for Education and Skills (DfES) 2003:51):

In the past, rewards in higher education – particularly promotion – have been linked much more closely to research than to teaching. Indeed, teaching has been seen by some as an extra source of income to support the main business of research, rather than recognised as a valuable and high-status career in its own right. This is a situation that cannot continue. Institutions must properly reward their best teaching staff; and all those who teach must take their task seriously.

According to the government, the TEF has been introduced a way of “better informing students’ choices about what and where to study, raising esteem for teaching, recognising and rewarding excellent teaching and better meeting the needs of employers, business, industry and the professions” (Department for Education 2016). Following the classic carrot and stick scenario, institutions are now being encouraged, if they so wish, to use their teaching recognition and reward schemes for staff, together with their impact and effectiveness, as evidence for institutional teaching quality. This also includes progression and promotion opportunities for staff based on teaching commitment and performance (ibid.).

In the 2003 white paper, the government also mandated the introduction of a new national professional standard for teaching and a new national body to develop and promote good teaching (Department for Education and Skills (DfES) 2003:7). The standard in question is the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF), and the body in question is the Higher Education Academy which also oversees the UKPSF framework on behalf of the higher education sector.

Cashmore et al. (2013) suggest that the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF), particularly the Senior and Principal Fellow recognition criteria, can serve as a basis for developing a framework for assessing teaching excellence. They suggest that any promotion criteria arising out of this must go beyond the UKPSF criteria. This is because the UKPSF’s primary purpose is to set the minimum standards for the various (ibid.). Table 1 below illustrates how the UKPSF can be mapped to individual levels on a potential teaching-only academic career route.

Table 1: An illustration of the three UKPSF  recognition level(adapted from The Higher Education Academy (2011):

Recognition level Typical individual role/career stage Examples
Fellow Individuals able to provide evidence of broadly based effectiveness in more substantive teaching and supporting learning role(s). Have substantive teaching and supporting learning role(s).


Successful engagement in appropriate teaching practices


Successful incorporation of subject and pedagogic research and/ or scholarship as part of an integrated approach to academic practice


Senior Fellow Individuals able to provide evidence of a sustained record of effectiveness in relation

to teaching and learning, incorporating for example, the organisation, leadership and/or

and learning provision.

 Having responsibility

for leading, managing or organising programmes, subjects and/or disciplinary areas


Successful incorporation of subject and pedagogic research and/ or scholarship as part of an integrated approach to academic practice


Successful co-ordination, support, supervision, management and/ or mentoring of others (whether individuals and/or teams) in relation to teaching and learning

Principal Fellow Individuals, as highly experienced academics, able to provide evidence of a sustained and effective record of impact at a strategic level in relation to teaching and learning, as part of a wider commitment to academic practice. Successful, strategic leadership to enhance student learning, with a particular, but not necessarily exclusive, focus on enhancing teaching quality in institutional, and/ or (inter)national settings


Establishing effective organisational policies and/or strategies for supporting and promoting others (e.g. through mentoring, coaching) in delivering high quality teaching and support for learning


Championing, within institutional and/or wider settings, an integrated approach to academic practice (incorporating, for example, teaching, learning, research, scholarship, administration etc.)


Adopting a more radical method: Rethinking the academic culture

Research and teaching were not always treated as separate academic activities. Prior to the advent of the Research Excellence Framework and its predecessor the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), academics were expected to do both. Fung and Gordon (2016) argue that rather than just focussing on advocating recognition and reward for teaching-only academics, a more effective approach would be to develop a more equitable culture in terms of rewarding staff whereby education leaders are recognised as being at the same level as research leaders. They advocate the development of new models for research-based education which maximise the synergies between research and education for the benefit of the student. In such an environment, parity of esteem between education and research will develop naturally, and academic staff will play to their own individual strengths when seeking promotion.

Concluding remarks

The modern university is now expected to deliver on multiple fronts, including traditional research, learning and teaching, community engagement and enterprise (knowledge transfer and impact). In such an environment, individuals increasingly play to their strengths, and this is to the benefit of the institution, the economy and society. It is therefore pertinent that reward and recognition   criteria should be developed to take account of the multiplicity of pathways that the individual academic chooses to take within the university.


“Higher Education and Research Act 2017”Chapter 29. City: HMSO: London.

Altbach, P. G., and Musselin, C. (2008). “The Worst Academic Careers — Worldwide” Inside Higher Education. City.

Brew, A., Boud, D., Crawford, K., and Lucas, L. (2017). “Navigating the demands of academic work to shape an academic job.” Studies in Higher Education, 1-11.

Cashmore, A., Cane, C., and Cane, R. (2013). “Rebalancing promotion in the HE sector: Is teaching excellence being rewarded.” Genetics Education Networking for Innovation and Excellence: the UK’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Genetics (GENIE CETL), University of Leicester, The Higher Education Academy.

Coates, H., and Goedegebuure, L. (2012). “Recasting the academic workforce: why the attractiveness of the academic profession needs to be increased and eight possible strategies for how to go about this from an Australian perspective.” Higher Education, 64(6), 875-889.

Department for Education. (2016). Teaching Excellence Framework: year two specification. London.

Department for Education and Skills (DfES). (2003). “The future of higher education”. City: HMSO: London.

Fung, D., and Gordon, C. (2016). Rewarding educators and education leaders in research-intensive universities. The Higher Education Academy.

HEFCE. (2012). “Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)”. City: HEFCE.

Locke, W. (2014). Shifting academic careers: implications for enhancing professionalism in teaching and supporting learning. The Higher Education Academy, York, England.

Locke, W., Whitchurch, C., Smith, H., and Mazenod, A. (2016). Shifting landscapes: Meeting the staff development needs of the changing academic workforce. The Higher Education Academy, York, England.

The Higher Education Academy. (2011). The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education. York, England.

STEM education – Why the MailOnline is now a threat to current higher education practices


This past month of April has witnessed three events that are likely to have a very significant impact on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). First, Serena Williams, who is arguably the best tennis player ever, announced that she and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian were going to have a baby.  Reddit is a highly successful news aggregation and discussion website that currently averages half a billion visitors per month.

The second event was the release of the news that Amber Heard and Elon Musk had started a relationship.  Amber Heard is a leading American actress who has recently divorced from her equally famous husband, the actor Johnny Depp. Elon Musk is a self-made multi-billionaire who made his fortune as a serial tech entrepreneur whose ventures include, amongst others, PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX.

The third event, and possibly the one with the greatest impact, and which in all likelihood was prompted by the first two, was the publication of an article by the MailOnline on the growing number of relationships between celebrity women and tech entrepreneurs. Like everything else with the MailOnline, the title of the article is catchy and meant to convey the essence of the whole story: “Beauty and the Geek: They’re brash, brainy and (handily) have fortunes to make Midas weep. No wonder the new tech nerds are attracting the world’s most desirable women.” In this article, the MailOnline argues that “models, sports stars and actresses are all after billionaire tech genius boyfriends” and “in these internet-obsessed days, you are nobody unless you have a tech genius — preferably a billionaire tech genius — on your arm.”

The MailOnline is currently the most visited English-language newspaper website in the world, with a daily average of over 15 million visitors by March 2017.  Entertainment news, in particular celebrity news and gossip stories, make up a significant component of the website’s content, and,  according to a Guardian news article,  it is responsible for  up to 25% of the web site’s traffic. Emphasising the MailOnline’s dominance as a purveyor of entertainment news, the  Financial Times suggests: “If you are tired of MailOnline, you are tired of Kim Kardashian’s life – and most readers are not.”  And this April, tech entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, Alexis Ohanian, and others have just been added to the MailOnline’s list of newsworthy celebrities.

Why should the coverage of tech celebrities have an impact on our approach to STEM? Basically this – through the MailOnline and other celebrity-focussed online publications, news and gossip stories on the lives of tech entrepreneurs have now become staple news. And along with this, technology has now assumed a new significance. Through the lives of these entrepreneurs, young, and not so young, ambitious men and women are suddenly realising how technology mastery can lead them to a life of fame and wealth.  They see the lipstick smudges of one of the world’s most desirable women in the world on Elon Musk’s cheeks, and they realise that technology mastery can turn this fantasy into reality.  They see on the MailOnline the cool expensive gadgets that successful tech entrepreneurs own, and they realise that if only they can successfully implement one, just one, tech idea, all these things will be there for them. And unlike soccer, athletics or boxing, where only the very best can excel, no one talent is necessary to be successful at tech entrepreneurship. In fact, it appears that tech entrepreneurship is game for all.

It is therefore apparent that coverage of tech entrepreneurs on celebrity news websites is likely to increase public awareness of STEM to a far much wider degree than is possible with current publicly funded STEM outreach programmes. This is good news for STEM, and for national economies, but there is a catch. Traditional STEM outreach programmes focus on creating interest in STEM for its own sake. For instance, typical programmes aimed at school children are designed to showcase the marvels and splendour of science and technology. In such programmes children learn how to do fancy stuff with science and technology, with the expectation that such engagement will motivate them to pursue STEM study programmes when they go off to college or university. Such children become intrinsically motivated to study STEM – i.e. they now have an internal desire to study STEM for its own sake. Sadly, an unintended consequence of this is that these children become miniature clones of typical STEM academics and practitioners who are driven more by their love for theory than any other external consideration.

In contrast, people likely to be recruited to STEM by the MailOnline and by other celebrity news websites, are less likely to be interested in theory for its own sake. They are after the material benefits and social status that success in technology can bring. For them, technology is a means to an end, and not an end to itself. Such people are said to be extrinsically motivated, and this is likely to impact our approach to the education and training of STEM practitioners. Extrinsically motivated people are less likely to dwell too much on theory compared to intrinsically motivated people. Their goal is to gain just the necessary amount of STEM knowledge to enable them to pursue their goals.  They are unlikely to patiently spend three or four years in degree programmes where they can’t see where most of the theory-laden lectures are leading to. They are more likely to adopt a hands-on problem-solving approach, and any theory that does not contribute to the task at end is immediately discarded. Worst of all, they are likely to drop out of standard degree programmes. This is nothing new – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are all university drop-outs.

We are now faced with a big challenge in STEM education. Our education systems now need to adapt to this new breed of STEM students. Conventional programmes aimed at mass education simply do not work. Rather, we should now be looking at greater personalisation in our programmes. This can be achieved by enabling students to design and direct part of their own learning. Additionally, the teaching of theory and practice should go hand-in-hand throughout the programme. Students should also have the flexibility to take some time away from university to work on a real-life application of the theory that they have learned, and education programmes should have the flexibility to accredit this work as part of the student’s learning process. This requires a whole new approach to teaching and assessment in higher education. However, the good thing is that similar approaches are now being experimented with, for instance in  work-based learning (WBL) programmes aimed at improving student employability (See, for instance, the paper by Joseph Raelin). Hence, the tools needed to implement a STEM education system that is ideal for tech entrepreneurship are already available.  What is now required is the higher education sector’s will to do so.