Saturday, 21 March 2015

What Aren't The Problems of Teaching Engineering - And Why Are These The Issues We Are Addressing? #1: "The STEM Shortage"

Those in engineering education whose hearts are in the right place have a vague feeling that there is something wrong with the education they are providing.

It is however made very hard for them to identify the real problem, as the discussions are dominated by discussions of non-problems.

The first of these is the supposed STEM shortage. Our well-meaning investigator talks to supposed experts, and reads the educational press and they are given a strong impression that the real problem in engineering education is a shortage of STEM graduates.

It is however far from clear that there is a shortage of STEM graduates as Stephen Gorard and The Atlantic Magazine pointed out a few years ago. The data simply is not there to support what has become the basis for almost all discussions of the subject. Those who get jobs as engineers may attract high wages, but only half of engineering graduates get to work as engineers.

There are vested interests who might wish all discussions to be based on this axiom. Universities, Employers, and Engineering Institutions all largely support the myth of the STEM shortage, arguably for reasons of self-interest.

In the UK, universities are ranked on their ratio of applications to accepted candidates. In many engineering courses this ratio may be as high as 10:1. There is no shortage of willing candidates for engineering degrees.

This does not however mean that university admissions tutors wouldn't like this marker of status to be higher. A higher ratio allows them to be pickier about the "tariff" of examination grades they will accept from candidates. This tariff is also a marker of status, reported in ranking tables.

There is no apparent upper limit to aspirations in these areas by universities, but this is nothing to do with making more or better engineers, as the pre-university exams have nothing to do with engineering ability. It is about managing the status of their institution.

A level results may correlate with degree classification, but degree classification does not have a simple relationship with ability as an engineer. This is in my opinion due to the lack of engineering in engineering degrees.

So if there is no evidence to support the idea that there is a shortage of applicants for STEM courses, perhaps there is (as employers organizations regularly claim), a shortage of STEM graduates?

Not only is there no evidence for that, there is strong evidence to the contrary. An uncomfortably high proportion of STEM graduates cannot get jobs in STEM. Surely if there are shortages, even our poorest graduates would be snapped up, and wages would be rising? But that's not what is happening.

If there is no shortage of STEM workers, why would employers' organizations say that there is? As with so many things in this debate, much lies in confusion over terms. Sometimes this lies with the authors of press releases, and often with journalistic misunderstanding.

A "STEM shortage" might be a local shortage of staff with certain specific training, shortages of time-served tradesmen, shortages of doctors, or simply a shortage of workers willing to work for what employers are offering.

A shortage of trained staff might be fixed by an employer being willing to train. The present shortage of time-served staff was caused by persuading 50% of young people to go into HE. Shortages of doctors have nothing to do with supply of engineers, and the last category is entirely soluble by a wage rise.

This last is presumably the reason why employers institutions are supportive of  the myth of the STEM shortage - oversupply will drive down wages.

What we are NOT short of is people willing to undertake accredited engineering degrees, or STEM (including engineering) graduates. There is clear oversupply of both of these things (in some cases massive oversupply as with UK pharmacists at present)

We may be short of chartered engineers, though the answer to this is not to allow non-engineers (people without at a minimum accredited degrees in engineering, and ideally with five years of experience as an engineering practitioner) to carry the title, as our engineering institutions have done.

In any case, STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Maths/Medicine) is too broad a brush. It is the cause of engineering institutions being involved in campaigns which are of no benefit to engineers in particular or society in general.

Our institutions send people into schools to promote STEM, rather than engineering, but even promoting engineering in schools is often wrong-headed. The only beneficiaries of yet more unsuccessful applicants to wildly oversubscribed engineering courses are the universities.

As we are already producing worldwide around twice as many engineering graduates as there are jobs for, one would think that there is little point in expanding engineering education provision, but the debate is so ill-founded in HE that that is exactly what we are doing.

The STEM conflation is also the cause of the major problem of engineering education. It supports the many people in university engineering departments who think that they are providing a STEM education rather than an engineering one. They consequently make students learn irrelevant science and maths, and employ scientists and mathematicians to teach them.

There will always be a shortage of excellent engineers - even in engineering practice there aren't that many. My students mostly have three As at A-level, but I would consider only about 10% to really have the knack for engineering which is needed to make a great engineer. There is no real sign of a STEM shortage, but there does appear to be a knack shortage. I will discuss what I think the reasons for this are in another post.