Roots of UK engineering education


When engineering was introduced in higher education in the 19th century in the UK, the university ruling bodies felt that the practice of engineering had insufficient rigour and intellectual content to be acceptable as a university discipline.  They did however accept that engineering science was a suitable subject area.  Therefore degrees in engineering started as being dominated by engineering science.   The practice of medicine and law were OK but the practice of engineering - no!

This attitude still haunts the development of engineering education.  It is still common for engineering teachers to say  “It is our job to educate the students not to train them for practice”.  I contend that:  (a)  at the top level, the intellectual requirement in professional engineering activities is of the highest order,  (b) all professional engineering activities are suitable for university study and (c) the hallmark of professional engineering is not competence in engineering science but the ability to achieve good outcomes in situations of complex uncertainty.  Science is one of the tools for achieving this.

Structural analysis became a main plank of the engineering science approach to engineering education.   It was treated as an end in itself.  This attitude is still dominant.

Then came computers making redundant most of the solution techniques taught in the past.  Computers implement algorithms.  Doing this would not be considered to be an intellectual achievement by computers. So what degree of intellectual achievement do students reach when carrying out solutions.  They do not find it easy but is not at the highest level.

The 19th century university senators got it badly wrong when they decided only to accept engineering science and not engineering practice.   They forced engineering education to focus on only one of the issues in engineering practice and neglect more intellectually demanding activities.

For further discussion on this see: