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What does Engineering tell us about social mobility?

  • 25 May 2021
  • By Johnny Rich & Stella Fowler

This blog was contributed by Johnny Rich (Chief Executive) and Stella Fowler (Policy Manager) from the Engineering Professors’ Council, the representative body of Engineering academics in UK universities. You can find Johnny on Twitter @JohnnySRich

The Government is keen to use graduate earnings as a metric for the value of degrees, but, unless we understand the extent to which any earnings premium is the consequence of the student’s degree or more a result of their background, the metric is no more than an uncalibrated measure.

For example, some institutions and disciplines deliver high earnings potential, but that isn’t a real ‘premium’ if, thanks to pre-existing social capital, the students had high earning potential already. Similarly, if the careers they enter tend to favour the privileged, the earnings data tell us precious little about the degree’s true value.

Engineering is virtually the Government’s poster child of a high-value degree.

Engineering is virtually the Government’s poster child of a high-value degree. Fifteen months after leaving university, 82% of Engineering graduates are in highly skilled roles and, after ten years, they earn an average of nearly £12,000 more than other graduates.

But is this premium distributed fairly? For students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is the study of Engineering an effective pathway to higher earnings and, by extension, social mobility?

A study published today by the Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC) confirms that Engineering does indeed make a significant contribution to social justice for its graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds – perhaps to a greater extent than almost any other discipline in higher education.

Engineering Opportunity: maximising the opportunities for social mobility from studying engineering shows that earnings premiums persist even when allowing for other characteristics and Engineering students at all levels of prior attainment earn higher wages than the average for other subjects.

Five years after graduating, they earn an average of £8,100 more than the average wage of other graduates with BTECs.

The premium is greatest though for engineers with BTEC qualifications, a group which includes many a high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Five years after graduating, they earn an average of £8,100 more than the average wage of other graduates with BTECs. Among high-attaining students (those with four A grades or more at A level) the average premium for engineers is a more modest £1,100.

Furthermore, five years after graduation, a higher percentage of Engineering graduates with BTECs remain in sustained employment compared to their peers with high attainment pre-university. These patterns are in stark contrast to generally lower premiums for BTEC students in other disciplines.

The geographic spread of the premium is also broad, reflecting the fact that, unlike some sectors which gravitate to areas such as London, engineering jobs are distributed more evenly – even in former industrial areas that have suffered economic decline. As a result, Engineering appears to offer a path not only to social mobility for the individual, but also to ‘level up’ whole communities and regions.

However, despite the promised social mobility, Engineering courses fall behind when it comes to achieving fair access to that opportunity.

Just 9% of Engineering students come from the most deprived areas (POLAR quintile 1).

The proportion of BTEC graduates in Engineering is 4.7% lower than the average for all disciplines. Just 9% of Engineering students come from the most deprived areas (POLAR quintile 1). Black and Afro-Caribbean students – among whom there is a significant intersection with social deprivation – are also underrepresented.

Some students don’t have the supposed pathway qualifications (such as Triple Science and Maths), but given that Engineering involves creative as well as scientific skills, these qualifications can only ever be a rough proxy for aptitude. Even so, these barriers are highly correlated with social disadvantage.

Foundation years offer an effective bypass into Engineering, but they are under threat from the Augar Review proposals and our research shows that access to such routes remains limited, especially at highly selective universities.

The critical question for Engineering then is, how can we ensure that the social justice that the discipline offers can be reached by more of those who need it? This question has implications for all of STEM and indeed higher education in general.

Drawing from the evidence, the EPC’sEngineering Opportunity makes seven recommendations.

  1. A more radical and widespread approach to contextual admissions with added support to ensure that students arriving on engineering courses with lower attainment can gain the necessary foundational knowledge to succeed.
  2. The introduction of preadjusted tariffs, in which students’ absolute grades would be translated to an individual tariff score using contextual data.
  3. The expansion of foundation years. The continuity of study in the same institution has been shown to support progression. Funding regimes across the UK should incentivise their expansion, not realise their demise.
  4. The development of conversion courses to facilitate entry to Engineering for those who have studied other disciplines or are returning to education (as a vital part of meeting the UK skills needs and levelling up agenda).
  5. Metrics that help, not hinder. The Government, OfS and other UK regulatory bodies should adopt criteria for success that recognise, not penalise, the value added for students who reach degree standard from a lower base of prior attainment and in the face of greater challenges.
  6. Monitoring and benchmarking of access at discipline level. Through the lens of POLAR data, Engineering courses perform disappointingly when it comes to fair access but, as we have seen, they do well for those who are admitted. In an effort to improve access metrics, universities may be encouraged to cut Engineering courses rather than address the access challenges. This would be counterproductive.
  7. Wider access to Triple Science and Maths. The most disadvantaged students are three times less likely to take Triple Science because of staff and resource shortages. It is seen as the preserve of only the ‘clever kids’. Every student with the capacity to succeed should have the opportunity to study Triple Science until GCSE/Level 2 and Maths to A-Level/Level 3.

We could have called for other measures to support social mobility through Engineering: better careers education, information, advice and guidance; greater numbers of better qualified teachers in Maths, Physics and Design & Technology, and more resources for these gateway subjects; Engineering to be recognised in the school curriculum either as its own subject or by fortifying the delivery of D&T and renaming it as ‘Engineering and Design’.

Those are all good suggestions, but – in the true spirit of engineering – we have restricted our recommendations above to those suggested by our latest evidence and they are inventive yet practical solutions that would have an impact far beyond the scale of their implementation.

The Engineering Opportunity report is available at http://bit.ly/EPCEngOpp. The launch event today (25 May ) at 9.15am to 10.15am is open to attend by registering at bit.ly/EPCSocialMobility.

1 comment

  1. This is an interesting and thoughtful piece of work, and as such the authors should be commended. I would perhaps go further and suggest that Foundation Years should also have a common curriculum. Now, I am sure that many will see this as a threat to sector independence, but from a student perspective it would help to provide greater mobility. By working together in this way, it would not only benefit the students, but could help to play into the levelling-up agenda and demonstrate the cohesion of the sector. Thus, rather than eroding our independence, it would help strengthen it.

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