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How can universities attract young people to study engineering?

The UK has been declining for the past few years in generating up-and-coming engineering talent. However, the benefits of (STEM) science, technology and mathematics to the wider society are widely recognised. An ever-expanding talent pool of engineering and STEM professionals is required to remain competitive and maintain innovation in the global economy.

Currently, the number of STEM graduates is not increasing at the pace required by industry and academia. This is seen as a major problem across the UK and mainland Europe if the flow of school-leavers choosing engineering degrees is not increased, as the talent pipeline will be reduced over the coming years.

It is known that parents have an influence on their children’s career choices, and the activities they are exposed to are found to affect their perception of careers and shape future aspirations and interests.

The primary motivation behind students’ choice of engineering and STEM courses is usually related to their perceived abilities in maths, science and problem solving, as well as the perception that engineering may have easy access to the labour market.

How can universities make engineering attractive to teens who are deciding what to do with their lives?

Research has identified that many undergraduates’ understanding of the engineering profession is sometimes very limited due to the overall exposure to the industry.

The engineering and manufacturing sectors have changed in recent years, with increased demand, the need to innovate, and the drive for Net-Zero combined to force the industry to step up. This means employers are looking for young people with real-world problem-solving abilities and the expertise needed to collaborate with other organisations.

The role universities play in this is vital. The onus is on them to create engineering courses that both appeal to school-leavers and provide the practical experience students will need when they graduate. Here are our thoughts on how universities can attract more students to study engineering:

Better coordinated initiatives

There are many things universities can do to change the stereotype of engineers often described as a “geek”. Create more school/university challenges to use more complex and exciting engineering tools and equipment. Invite more schoolchildren into the laboratories to let them get hands-on experience in engineering.

Collaborate with local businesses

Post-pandemic school-leavers are acutely aware of the benefits of in-person learning, and many want a more hands-on university experience, especially in engineering. Universities need to partner with employers to embed work-related activities at every stage of the curriculum, providing students with real-world experience and providing local businesses with potential recruits.

Because of this, universities tend to have strong connections with local economies, and those in areas with a thriving manufacturing industry are particularly well-placed to attract young engineers. An example is the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), located in a county that ranks among the top four aerospace production centres in the world and is home to giants like BAE Systems.

Reform the curriculum

Open up the pool of candidates by changing the message that engineering is only for people who are good at mathematics and science. We must focus on the creative nature and the problem-solving skills required in engineering courses.

Include more disciplines in the curriculum

Aerospace, along with motorsport and mechanical engineering, is one of the most popular specialisms for engineers at UCLan. However, specialisms are only half the picture; universities also need to equip students with the ability to work in a multi-disciplinary way, with an understanding of other fields and of macro issues that impact engineers’ work.

Educate the next generation about the demand for engineers worldwide

Engineers are in-demand worldwide and can attract young people looking to travel and work abroad. An engineering degree not only supports the local economy but equips graduates to travel internationally and find rewarding work in almost any country.

Broader sector-wide contribution to training future engineers

The UK often does not use the whole higher education sector to drive engineering attainment. We need greater coordination between former polytechnics, colleges, etc., to contribute education to people studying apprenticeships or technicians seeking higher qualifications.

Offer subsidised tuition costs for engineering courses

Many schemes offer bursaries for engineering, but they often do not attract enough interest. The clearer the message, the better chance of it trickling down to young people. With a university degree currently costing £9,250 a year without living expenses added on top, one way to draw attention to the subject would be to consider introducing lower tuition fees cap for the subject or a grant scheme to help those interested in learning to engineer. Universities are responsible for preparing tomorrow’s engineers to provide solutions that today’s top engineers cannot even imagine. It is vital to give them the solid foundations they need.

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