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No magic bullets: Interview with Dr Anthony Finkelstein

Where are the next generation of engineers coming from? It's no use pointing the finger elsewhere, we must all work together according to Professor Anthony Finkelstein. 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. Clearly, supply is currently outstripping demand; Engineering UK has predicted the UK needs 87,000 new graduate engineers every year for the next 10 years if we are to get back on track. We currently produce 46,000, including overseas students.

"This is a broad challenge for education and, indeed, for society as a whole," claimed Prof Finkelstein. "The problem is complex and a whole range of things are tied together. These range from societal cultural attitudes towards engineering and technology to the way in which 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 an exciting and inspirational way. There are big efforts going into making that happen. Whilst the situation is changing very rapidly, 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 will require 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: this is a 25 year project, not an 18 month project," he stated. "It requires us to co-educate parents and children alongside each other. It requires us to address the media. There is a whole range of different things that we need to do and that means industry, professional institutions, universities, further and vocational educators, school educators and cultural institutions 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 and 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 in which information technology was being taught in schools, 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 industry, was formed to tackle the problem. "The politicians were very responsive to this and the national curriculum was changed," said Prof Finkelstein. "Now, there is a much stronger emphasis on computer science with much better, enriched and stimulating curricula, which will deliver, I believe, 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."

Universities could adapt rapidly to increased numbers of students as they are now, says Prof Finkelstein: "A demand driven economy. I don't think that the supply of higher education is choked here. We need the qualified and motivated students to pitch up."

While maintaining that it is a complex problem, Prof Finkelstein believes one huge step towards solving it would be if young women were as interested in engineering as young men. "It would give us access to talent. It would make British engineering better through diversity. It would be a fantastic thing."

Another beneficial component in the mix would be the return of the sandwich course. He said: "I think the demise of the sandwich course 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."

Electronics is evolving in more ways than just pure technology and this has an impact on the way it is taught according to Prof Finkelstein. "The changing nature of the electronics industry, with so much development and production moving offshore, changes the nature of the curriculum. And of course we are educating many of those engineers – 50% of our students come from overseas."

He concluded: "I do think that, educationally, electronics is at a very interesting transition point. There is still much design work in the UK and, of course, the balance between software and hardware in typical composite systems makes a difference to the shape of their education as well."

Prof Anthony Finkelstein
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.

Author
Tim Fryer

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