Six months from now, students and engineering departments will be living the day-to-day reality of the government’s controversial reforms of higher education. Students walking through the doors of engineering lecture theatres for the first time will be paying up to £9,000 a year for a degree, and staff will be working with a complex and as yet undetermined funding programme.
Under the reforms, set out in a government white paper published last July, central funding for universities has been slashed and tuition fees have trebled to pick up part of the shortfall. With the cost of getting a degree soaring, the effects on engineering departments, their students and the wider economy remain to be seen. Earlier this year, the first piece of evidence as to how the system will fare as a result of the changes came to light. The university admissions service UCAS published its application statistics for the coming academic year.
Across the board, applications are down 8% but engineering has fared well, with a drop of just 1.3%. Last year universities saw a bumper year, including in engineering, as many students rushed to apply ahead of the reforms. But even with a small drop in applicants this year compared to last there are still 7,000 more applicants to study engineering today than there were two years ago.
Professor Helen Atkinson, president of the Engineering Professors’ Council and head of the materials and mechanical engineering group at the University of Leicester, is encouraged by the figures. “I think that students are aware of the fact that doing engineering at university makes them very employable,” she says.
Last month, the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced that engineering was a strategically important subject for the nation. As a consequence engineering departments will receive some central funding to boost the finance stream from tuition fees. Departments can expect just over £1,000 per student, money that is not available in other subject areas such as the arts or humanities.
Atkinson says that it is not clear how long this additional funding will continue. But the money is welcome, as engineering is an expensive subject to teach, she says. It requires labs, practicals and project supervision, which is all labour intensive. Departments gain income from a variety of funding streams, including postgraduate education. Atkinson adds that recent changes to visa regulations have made it more difficult for overseas students to study in the UK, which could have a knock-on effect for undergraduate provision.
The government and funding agencies have yet to fully describe how the new funding regime will work. Professor Matthew Harrison, director of education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, fears that funding will not be sufficient to produce the quality of education required for the rapidly expanding and technological society that we live in, even with relatively high fees.
He explains: “Engineers are on the leading edge of delivering solutions to the problems of climate change, energy and the ageing population. We are increasingly at the centre of the innovative and entrepreneurial activity that is going to rebalance the economy and trade us out of a recession.
“Under the old funding regime it was very finely balanced, so if there is any reduction in funding it will be yet harder still. You can’t stack them high and teach them cheap.” In particular, departments may struggle to fund innovations in teaching if running at a financial deficit. These innovations, for example students working with industry to tackle authentic engineering problems, give students self-confidence and a head start in the world of work.
Some engineering departments may be more vulnerable than others in light of the changes, says Harrison. Research has suggested that small departments, which undertake niche research, may be under the most threat. In this type of department, the reduction in teaching grants plus potential losses in research money as a result of a more focused funding approach could spell trouble. “It could have a small effect on the number of graduate engineers but a very large effect on industry,” says Harrison.
At this stage, engineering departments themselves are seeing a mixed picture. The school of engineering at the University of Warwick has seen a drop in applications from UK students. Dr Tony Price, deputy head for teaching at the school, explains that part of this fall is down to the fact that many people who might have started university this year rushed to apply last year. Usually, 10% of applicants to study engineering at Warwick defer entry for a year.
The full impact of this will only become clear further into the admissions cycle, he says. In April or May students will select their first-choice university. “We might be a small percentage down, but if those were the people who wouldn’t have come anyway we won’t be worse off,” he adds.