Commercial Education Trust : Reflections on Involving Undergraduate Engineers in Business Education

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Posted on 2 April 2019

Reflections on Involving Undergraduate Engineers in Business Education

By David Falzani MBE.

It’s widely accepted that engineering skills are greatly augmented by commercial and business skills. However, paradoxically, the biggest pool of engineering education, university undergraduate degrees, generally lacks any meaningful business content.

At the same time that EngineeringUK warns of an upcoming crisis through a lack of engineers, the Royal Academy of Engineering observes that less than half of engineering graduates go on to engineering roles and The ERA Foundation highlights that undergraduate engineers feel that their degrees are too narrow, not creative, and not fun.

Meanwhile, some of the most important global challenges we face in the world today are not just technical challenges: They require the ability to link technologies to an understanding of the market mechanism, funding models, business skills and entrepreneurial commercial thinking.

It’s worth noting with some irony that young people today are actually exceptionally passionate about finding meaningful solutions to these same big problems, such as developing supplies of clean water and clean energy, and the plastics problem.

This was the background to my honorary professorship at Nottingham University Business School, generously funded and supported by the CET. The challenge I’d pursue? To find a scalable way to inject the creativity and excitement of commercial education into undergraduate and graduate engineering activities.

It would have been nice if the answer was as easy as incorporating business subjects into the many different disciplines of engineering curricula. However, having spoken to stakeholders at the local and national level, all reported it would be impractical. The many curricula are already under constant pressure from additional technical content, the national regulator, and up to 38 accrediting professional engineering institutions. Hence another route was required.

In some cases, there were already some business electives and extra curricula (or co curricula) activities available to engineering undergraduates but, for a variety of reasons, numbers taking these up were relatively low. Therefore the working hypothesis was to find a way to increase the take up of these existing mechanisms in order to increase commercial education of undergraduate engineers.

The first route tried was going through engineering departments at several universities. Despite much good will, going through engineering departments was ineffective for two main reasons.

Firstly, the nominated ‘champions’ showed limited ability to implement such initiatives. The day to day tasks of moving students through the already busy undergraduate programmes seemed to take over. This was often despite the support of the university senior staff including Vice-Chancellor, Pro Vice-Chancellor, and department heads.

Secondly, the mechanisms around student management appeared quite rigid and inward looking. One example involved a business elective theoretically available to year three and four engineers which had received rave reviews from previous engineering participants, and it had been shown that their grades over the previous three years had been higher than the business students on the same module – a strong case study that was highlighted to key faculty to support inclusion. However, despite this, and efforts to increase participation, the vast majority of undergraduate engineers remained unable to participate because the course directors would not authorise the module for their students. Partly, this may have been due to misplaced intellectual concerns. Partly, the funding model meant that students taking electives supplied by the business faculty reduced the revenue of the engineering faculty. It’s worth stating again that these findings were despite much good will from faculty staff, and perhaps reflect structural challenges within the environment.

An alternative second route appeared more synergistic and better aligned with the challenge of using existing mechanisms: Going through university ‘enterprise departments’ with an engineer specific prize for existing competitions – this received a strong and positive response. These departments exist to engage with commercial and business activities, generally targeting undergraduates across all faculties with activities such as pitch competitions. A typical competition includes multiple elements, including formal education sessions and mentoring. Here then was an opportunity to harness the rising tide of interest in enterprise over the last decade across popular culture, including TV programmes such as Dragons’ Den, and an explosion in crowd funded start-ups.

A prize fund of £3,000 per university competition was secured from the charity Engineers in Business Fellowship, along with an offer of PR support for the university and follow on career mentoring for participants. Typically, the funds would be awarded as three prizes: £1,500, £1,000 and £500 to the top three engineering winners (whether individual, or teams containing at least one engineer). In return for the prize fund, enterprise departments agreed to specifically target engineers within their institutions and measure uplifts in their participation rates.

Initial results have been very promising with disproportionally large increases in engineer participation. At Nottingham University’s Ingenuity’18 competition last year, 457 students and alumni entered, with 89 engineers participating, up from 72 the previous year – an increase of 24%. At Kingston University’s Bright Ideas, there were 650 competition participants, which is an overall increase of 8%, whilst 250 engineers participated – an increase of 25% over the previous year. At the University of Bristol’s New Enterprise Competition, Round 1 saw a 50% increase in engineers taking part over previous year, and for Round 2 a 300% increase in engineers. City University’s London CitySpark similarly had an increase of 41% engineer participants.

The original plan was to increase the number of competitions supported this way to 10 universities per year over three years. However, the initial results have been so promising, the Engineers in Business Fellowship secured additional funding for the competition prizes – kindly provided by The Gatsby Charitable Foundation – and now there will be 20 participating universities this coming year, rising to up to 50 universities per year in three years’ time. A national championship of champions final is also being planned and there have been expressions of interest from TV media.

And so, the original challenge has been met: The discovery of an exciting scalable approach to delivering commercial education to engineering students. The next few years will show to what level the activities will reach and what other challenges will be uncovered.

David Falzani MBE CEng is a serial entrepreneur, company director and business consultant, Honorary Professor at Nottingham University Business School, and President of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship. The author would like to thank the Commercial Education Trust for its ongoing support, The Engineers in Business Fellowship and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation for their support, and colleagues and staff at Nottingham University Business School for their invaluable guidance.

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