Course Guidance: Creative appeal of engineering lacks takers: Colleges are trying to brighten the image of neglected study areas, as Karen Gold reports

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The Independent Online
ENGINEERING is creative, the Engineering Council promises in its come-hither publications aimed at young people who would not even consider taking up an engineering degree course if it hit them with a spanner.

Engineers are the people who design heart transplant equipment and satellites; they travel and earn lots of money. Who could resist being an engineer?

Thousands of sixth-formers could, judging by the decline in university and polytechnic entries for physics and maths A-levels, and the multitude of vacancies still remaining on science and engineering degree courses.

Despite extra grants, glamorously retitled courses, language and business options, political pressure and graduate unemployment, the fact remains that would-be students do not want to do science and engineering.

They are making a big mistake, argues Nicola Cox, an engineering student with arts A- levels now on Leeds Metropolitan University's BEng in manufacturing systems with business. 'If you do an engineering degree you can be employed in engineering or go into any business or administrative job that wants a graduate,' she says.

'If you do an English degree there's no way you can ever go into something scientific or in engineering.'

At Leeds Metro the newest engineering degree combines electronic systems engineering with music and media technology. 'People think engineering is a dirty-hands job, but graduate engineers are two or three levels of management above machines,' Paul Ratcliff, the engineering admissions tutor, points out.

'Students from here will be working with communications systems, TV systems; doing sound and video production. For example there's a gulf in TV between the 'artistic' people and the technical people. Graduates from this degree are going to bridge that gap.'

The fact that 15 out of 30 places were still vacant on this degree course last week illustrates the desperate situation in science and engineering faculties. Lecturers are now looking to recruit from the two groups of A-level candidates (plus mature applicants) who at this late stage of clearing still have no places: people with weak arts A-level grades, and those with even weaker science ones.

'We will take people with a D in chemistry or physics to go on to courses like physics with business or chemistry with German,' says Professor Reg Davis, director of Kingston University's modular science degrees. 'We are looking for eight points plus, and a D is quite acceptable for joint honours. For German we only require GCSE. You can't get on to a business degree with those sorts of grades.'

Science combined with another discipline at Kingston means a 60/40 science/something split in timetable: enough business or German to produce highly employable graduates, but too much science to shrug off as the price for a degree, Prof Davis warns.

'You can't change on to single honours business because it's not included in the modular scheme. People who say they aren't very keen on the science but they'll do it if they must are the ones who tend to drop out or fail the first year.'

People who are keen on science will be taken on to the Kingston foundation-year course in science and engineering even if they have no science qualifications. 'People come in saying they have seen a few Horizon programmes and they really want to do this,' Prof Davis says. 'With the very careful, helpful teaching in the six local colleges where the foundation year is taught, and with their own commitment, they do very well.'

Almost 500 courses now exist enabling arts A-level holders to 'convert' to science and engineering. (In the 'old' universities they are often called Steps courses; in the former polys they are known as Hitech courses.

Steps course details can be found in University Entrance: The Official Guide, available in libraries; Hitech courses are listed by PCAS as 'extended' courses under each institution in the PCAS guide.) All carry a full grant and loan; some last a year, others only a few weeks.

They extend far more widely than single science or traditional engineering. This year's options include surveying science at Newcastle, engineering with business management at Surrey, horticulture at Hertfordshire (formerly Hatfield Poly) and food science at South Bank.

Most operate a 'taster' approach so that students can choose between specialist degrees at the end of the course. At Kingston, for example, foundation-year students have a choice of 40 different degrees. At Southampton Institute of HE, the one-year Hitech course covers business studies, computing, drawing, maths, mechanical science and electrical science.

'We start absolutely from square one,' Richard Penson, Southampton's deputy head of engineering, says. 'We've had people with just A-level art do well.' But he acknowledges some do less well: most 'conversion' courses lose one student in ten during the course, and another two or three who fail exams at the end of it.

This is the risk that arts students who are contemplating conversion must weigh up. Most will discover in science and engineering a new and an exciting career path. But a sizeable minority will find their hopes - raised after disappointing A-levels - now dashed once again.