Engineering the pipeline: Interview with Anthony Finkelstein

Written by: Tim Fryer | Published:

Everyone is bemoaning the lack of good engineers coming through the education system. But if we are to solve this problem rather than apportion blame, says Professor Anthony Finkelstein, we must all work together. Tim Fryer reports.

Unsurprisingly, as the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Sciences at University College London (UCL), Professor Anthony Finkelstein has opinions and insights on many topics. Inevitably it is the supply of young trained engineers into the workplace that dominates – the so called 'pipeline issue'.

Clearly demand is currently outstripping supply. Engineering UK predicted the UK needs 87,000 new graduate engineers a year, for the next ten years, to get back on track – and we currently produce 46,000.

"This is a broad challenge for education and indeed for society as a whole," claimed Prof Finkelstein. "The problem is a complex multi factor problem and a whole range of things are tied together. Those things range from societal cultural attitudes towards engineering and technology, and the way that the sciences and mathematics are taught.

"I believe that all the elements of engineering – science, mathematics and design – need to be introduced to children in a more exciting and inspirational way. There are big efforts going into making that happen, and the situation is changing very rapidly, but there is a long way to go."

Prof Finkelstein believes the whole issue has been 'bedevilled' by people looking for simplistic solutions and magic bullets, while persistently underestimating the size of the challenge.

"It requires us to use all the array of tools at our disposal, and it will be necessary to do this over a long period of time," he stated. "It needs to be a 25 year project, not an 18 month project. It requires us to co-educate parents and children alongside each other. It requires us to address the media - there are a whole range of different things that we need to do. That means that industry, professional institutions, universities, further and vocational educators, school educators, cultural institutions: they all have to work in a unified way and as a partnership."

Currently, he believes, there are too many people in industry sniping at the universities, universities sniping at schools, while vocational education has been pushed to the side. "We have not been working in a coherent way," he said. However, change is possible and he cites the example of computer sciences.

"There was a problem with the way that information technology was being taught in schools," he said, "with an effect on the supply of computer scientists and ultimately with an effect on the economy."

A collaboration between professional institutions and the academies (the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering) along with universities and with industry formed to tackle the problem.

"The politicians were very responsive to it and the national curriculum was changed," he explained. "Now there is much stronger emphasis on computer science, with much more enriching and stimulating curricula, which will deliver a step change in the way that students engage with computing. So there is positive evidence that by working together we can change things for the better."

Prof Finkelstein believes one huge step towards solving the problem would be if young women were as interested in engineering as young men.

"It would make British engineering better through diversity," he said. "It would be a fantastic thing and would give us access to a greater number of talented young people."

Another beneficial component in the mix would be the return of the sandwich course, where students take a year out between year two and three of their course and do a placement in a relevant company. He said: "I think the demise of the sandwich courses was a sad moment, but we are moving back towards that situation with many more work placements and internships. I think that is going to be an almost inevitable end point."

Another notable difference has been in the nature of the school-leavers who arrive at universities. Prof Finkelstein said: "They come from schools, to us at universities, with better self organisation and self management skills. But they tend to have poorer technical problem solving skills. So the schools are preparing the students differently. It is not better or worse, it is just different. But that difference is a challenge, so we have to start students at a different point when it comes to solving certain sorts of problems."

He concluded: "There is still much design work in the UK and of course the balance between software and hardware in typical systems makes a difference to the shape of their education as well."

Professor Anthony Finkelstein
Professor Anthony Finkelstein is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the City & Guilds of London Institute. He is a graduate in systems engineering holding a BEng, MSc and PhD. Currently he is Professor of Software Systems Engineering at University College London (UCL) and serves as Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Sciences. Prof Finkelstein has published more than 240 scientific papers and is a Fellow of both the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the British Computer Society. He has provided consultancy advice to a large number of high profile companies and universities and has received the 'Entrepreneurial Spirit' award for his work on knowledge transfer to industry.

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