If you have children due to start university from 2012 onwards (and I do), and live in England, you will be very aware that the arrangements for university fees are changing. The Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC), which represents engineering in higher education right across the UK, has been looking at the new regime to analyse the risks.
Engineering is a relatively expensive subject to teach: hands-on laboratory experience is important for the development of highly competent engineers (as important as it is, for example, for medics), and the costs of laboratory equipment are high.
Other significant costs include laboratory supervision; licences for software; and workshops and technical staff to support students’ research projects.
Engineering departments are “mixed economies” – probably among the most mixed in the university sector. They have shown great resilience and resourcefulness in the face of previous financial pressures.
Current income streams include a proportion of home/EU and overseas student fees both at undergraduate and at postgraduate level; some Higher Education Funding Council support; payments for services to industry; industry support for part-time students; and payment for R&D.
A threat to any one of these funding streams, if it is a significant proportion of departmental income, is a threat to the survival of undergraduate provision for students from the UK. All these funding streams are threatened to some extent.
Overseas students make up 30% of the total undergraduate student numbers in engineering and, in many universities, more than 60% of the postgraduate taught (MSc) population. In a study commissioned by the EPC in collaboration with what was then the Engineering Technology Board (now Engineering UK), we showed that almost all departments would be running at a loss if there were no overseas provision.
Against this background, we have concerns about the potential impact of the new home fees regime. The most significant of these is the future of four-year masters courses – the MEng – the “gold standard”.
Entry is highly selective, there is high demand from industry for the graduates, and it is the exemplifying academic qualification, under the Engineering Council’s UK-Spec, for eventual professional recognition as a chartered engineer. We are concerned that students will be deterred from taking the four-year course purely on financial grounds.
The main alternative route to become a chartered engineer is to follow a three-year BEng course with an MSc (or equivalent further learning). We are concerned that the already high levels of debt will dissuade people from taking on a further year of debt – on commercial terms rather than with Student Finance England, the student loans body – therefore also reducing the supply of potential chartered engineers for industry.
Added to this, up until now there has been some government support for MSc courses for UK students. This has disappeared.
Although the number of students supported in recent years for such courses has been relatively small, they are an important source of critical skills – for example in nuclear engineering, renewables, water resources, geo-environmental engineering, and waste treatment.
Withdrawal of support is likely to undermine the viability of some courses and therefore threaten the supply of specialists for the UK economy in these subjects. We hope that industrial sponsorship, for example of employees, will continue and, indeed, increase to help ensure the continuing provision of such courses.
The EPC will continue to work to support and develop engineering in higher education across the country. But we face major challenges and continuing uncertainty. One thing that we do hope for is that many more companies will follow the lead of Dyson and Ford in offering sponsorship packages to students.