Is our engineering heritage on the wane in British Universities?

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With British universities oversubscribed and operating at capacity one would have thought that our nation is producing a talented new generation. Talented, maybe, but sadly not interested in science or engineering, writes Martyn Day
The history of British engineering and invention is something we can all look upon with great pride, from The Rocket steam train to the Harrier Jump Jet; Isambard Kingdom Brunel to James Dyson, let it not be said that we don’t have good ideas. However while we created the industrial revolution we have been unable to stay ahead of other countries, with UK engineering in long term decline for the last 50 years.

This rich heritage is rarely taught in schools and engineering is not particularly promoted or associated with a positive image. The net result is a generation of wannabe celebrity chefs, X-Factor warblers and ‘business studies’ apprentice-style sales fodder. A friend of mine who works at a well-known university told me that the business studies degree intake is so large they can’t all fit in the lecture hall, and that’s including using the steps as seats. Meanwhile they don’t know if they have enough heads to run their engineering courses.

The University of Cambridge ranks top of the UK manufacturing engineering institutes, but will the heritage remain much longer?

Current statistics tell of a very sad state of affairs. For instance, the number of electrical engineering students enrolling in universities has continued to fall year on year, with a 45 per cent decline in numbers of engineering students between 2001 and 2008. And it gets worse, when you consider that out of those graduates, around 60% do not subsequently pursue a career in engineering. To broaden the science issue further, there are more painful stats that include the closure of over 30% of university physics departments and 10% of chemistry departments.


This decline in the popularity of engineering and science comes at a time when there has been a considerable increase in overall student numbers over the past ten years thanks to Mr. Blair’s fascination with up-skilling the nation’s qualifications by dumbing down the exam system.

Industry and engineering company leaders have warned that this trend is already having a bearing on the UK’s ability to compete in the global engineering and manufacturing marketplace. While many will lament the loss of much of our manufacturing capacity to China and India, we are also in competition and losing to rising eastern European firms.

Napoleon once called us a nation of shopkeepers, I’d hate for this business studies generation to ultimately prove him right

Now the goose that laid the golden egg, the financial services industry has soiled the basket that most of our eggs were in. Selling debt is no longer in fashion, we now have to create wealth by making stuff and designing products, if not physically making them. For that we need engineers harnessing the latest design technology. We can’t have another growth bubble funded on indebtedness and self-cert mortgages.

Fortunately we still have a solid base to work from and world-renowned expertise in many key engineering areas and a huge opportunity to expand into emerging markets such as green power. Although here, the current government’s wind power policy relies on the long lead-times of precision bearings that are nearly all made in Germany.

We need clear support for all design and manufacturing industries, especially as the UK looks to be the last economy to emerge from the global recession. Napoleon once called us a nation of shopkeepers, I’d hate for this business studies generation to ultimately prove him right.

Martyn Day is Consulting Editor of DEVELOP3D. He wonders what happened to all the inspirational science teachers he had when he was at school – please tell.

Martyn Day ponders the decline of UK engineering

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