24 March 2015

On assessment drift and engineering education

There is an interesting new campaigning blog on the block, called Fixing Engineering Education. A post today points to an article on the Guardian blog, about the training of engineers at university, and to a blog exchange on LinkedIn arising from it, with particular reference to chemical engineering. (Disclosure, my father and my brother were both chemical engineers.)

I was impressed by the quality of comment in the exchange, and by the near-unanimity amongst practitioners that the education on offer is just not fit for purpose. The Chief Executive of the Institute of Chemical Engineers rather defensively dismissed some of the Guardian article as “complete rubbish”, and tried to assert that the industry-education links are developing, but the consensus among the other contributors persuasively contradicts that.

I'm not equipped to comment on the specific case of engineering, but I'm not surprised by the argument. It accords with what I have observed many times over 20 years of observing teaching and talking to “second career” vocational teachers working in further and higher education. The blog author attributes the drift away from practice and into academic preoccupations in universities in part to the lack of practical background of most engineering academics, and to their need to claim their status as proper academics. That may be so, but there is a substantial tradition of critical educational thought which suggests that the drift is inexorable. It goes back to Howard Becker's classic "A School is a Lousy Place to Learn Anything in" (1972) in conjunction with ideas about situated learning and communities of practice.
From the educational end, the issues are most clearly reflected in the process of assessment: I discussed how it works in this post a couple of years ago. I guessed that there might be no more than 15% overlap between what the area of practice actually requires, and what the course ends up assessing and graduating. If this blog and the comments on LinkedIn are to be believed, the case of engineering education illustrates it beautifully, except that it suggests there is no overlap at all left.

Once you commodify education and start demanding £36,000 from graduates (the M.Eng is a four-year course), that won't wash any more. Perhaps the call for a revival of graduate-level apprenticeships may finally be heeded?


  1. Thanks James. I took the liberty of borrowing your graphic, if that's OK?

  2. I agree with this blog. When I was a student about 15% learnt at university was actually useful to me.

    I am not sure I know the percentage now.

    When I did my MBA 1979-81 "Deschooling Society" was on the reading list and it said much the same as this blog, so there is nothing new here.

  3. Good post! I am also going to write a blog post about this... thanks 

    Distance Education Institute in Gurgaon


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