Can Swedish images of engineering help UK universities widen participation in engineering degrees?
Although recruitment to undergraduate degrees in engineering in the UK has risen slightly in recent years, concerns remain. Last year, Engineering UK predicted an ongoing 20,000+ shortfall in engineering graduates and highlighted that Brexit poses particular risks for the field as postgraduate recruitment is heavily dependent on EU and international students. Even those who are skeptical of the evidence for these predictions agree that engineering needs a makeover. A few years ago, an engineering in higher education debate advocated making it more female-friendly, increasing the status of engineers and raising awareness of engineering in schools. Women account for just one in eight engineering undergraduates – a dismal percentage that stubbornly refuses to shift despite years of initiatives, and which mirrors patterns in physics and computing. In this context, we may be able to learn something from how universities in Sweden – a country with a proportion of female engineers three times higher than the UK’s – market engineering degrees. This is the subject of a recently-published article, ‘In search of the new engineer: gender, age, and social class in information about engineering education’ by Maria Berge, Eva Silfver and Anna Danielsson. In this blog, they team up with Heather Mendick to share their insights.
Maria, Eva and Anna analysed the websites of engineering BA and MA courses at six different Swedish universities, looking at course descriptions and student profiles. They identified three collections of meanings or discourses that attach to contemporary engineering. First, the technological progression discourse presents engineering as key to ensuring a constantly developing and improving society. Second, the sustainability discourse focusses on the need for engineering to address the world’s dwindling resources. Third, the neoliberal discourse, as you might expect, centres on choice, competitiveness and markets, with engineers figured as crafting their own careers.
‘Four identities for future engineers are constructed in the intersections of these discourses: traditional, contemporary, responsible, and self-made.’
Four identities for future engineers are constructed in the intersections of these discourses: traditional, contemporary, responsible, and self-made. Traditional and contemporary technologist identities foreground the technical knowledge involved in engineering, but within the latter there’s more space for so-called soft skills such as teamwork and communication. Both draw heavily on the alignment of engineering with technological progression. When this is combined with the sustainability discourse, you get the responsible engineer identity. Mostly, the responsible engineer figures as instrumental to solving problems and so to averting environmental disaster. Only occasionally, in student profiles, are tensions between dominant ideas of progress and global sustainability hinted at. Finally, we have the self-made engineer identity, which is the ideal neoliberal subject: self-reliant, keeping their options open and always striving to be better. Tensions between market competition and social responsibility remain unexplored.
So what does this mean for recruiting people to engineering degree courses? Can these moves towards sociability, responsibility and entrepreneurship help widen participation in the UK engineering education?
The article ends by identifying the emergent image of the ideal engineering student. They are young, sociable and into sports. They study hard but keep a productive balance between work and play. Maria, Eva and Anna remark on two omissions. First, there is no reference in either the student profiles or the course descriptions to geekiness. This is the passionate, even obsessive, embrace of technology that is popularly associated with engineering (and science more generally) in television series like The Big Bang Theory. It is not simply absent but is actively defended against by talk of engineering students’ physical fitness and their vibrant social lives. Second, while there is much talk of parties, alcohol is never mentioned. This is despite research by Andreas Ottemo (2015) showing that drinking cultures are central to Swedish engineering student communities, and specifically to maintaining their masculinity.
In terms of marketing engineering degrees, the mix of technologist, responsible and self-made engineering identities may make the subject more attractive to diverse young people, supporting widening participation agendas. But there is little on these websites that marks engineering out from many other disciplines that potential students may be considering. Also research shows that students drop out of engineering courses when they feel that their identities clash with the prevailing culture, making it problematic to transform the online image of engineering without also working to transform the cultures of engineering courses and workplaces. Finally, post-2008, young people have shifted away from individualism following the failure of neoliberalism to deliver on its promise of economic security in exchange for hard work. In this context, a deeper focus on responsibility and sustainability may be more attractive than the myth that you can craft your own future.
Berge, M., Silfver, E. and Danielsson, A. (2018) In search of the new engineer: Gender, age, and social class in information about engineering education. European Journal of Engineering Education. Advance online publication. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03043797.2018.1523133