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What’s Wrong With Academia 7: Why I Have Left Academia
I went into academia with a rather starry-eyed vision of making a difference. I wanted to help change the way engineering was taught, making it more realistic and relevant. I also wanted to help young student engineers, particularly those – like me – from less privileged backgrounds, on the path to their first engineering jobs.
However, my attempts over several years to realign even a small corner of academia with my profession proved very hard work, with little prospect of change.
This is because the existing system for educating engineers suits almost everyone who is already on the inside. The students can sit the traditional, formal individual exams which align well with the aptitudes for which they were originally selected. They can be taught almost exclusively explicit knowledge in large groups by means of traditional lectures.
The well-connected posher kids in particular benefit. I found that many students on engineering degrees nowadays have very little genuine interest or passion in learning to be engineers; instead they are looking for the sort of degree which will offer them the keys to any well-paid graduate career. Similarly, the blue-chip companies which employ this type of student are not looking for graduates with a true passion or vocation for engineering because their career routes offer progression into management. They want faces which fit, not anoraks.
The existing system also suits lecturers, allowing large groups to be taught by a single staff member. This reduces the overall time spent on teaching, an activity which has few tangible benefits for lecturers once practiced beyond technical compliance. The professional institutions also benefit, since academic staff provide them with so much free (but cv-enhancing) committee and admin support – activities which are often done during paid university time.
As I see it, there are two main types of loser under the present system. The first are those few kids with a real flair for engineering, from whatever background. These students have to compete in a crowded jobs market with hordes of generic, bright, usually middle-class kids with no real passion for engineering – and the playing field is not level.
Secondly, small to medium sized employers lose out. These are the businesses which, collectively, employ the lion’s share of graduates. They need graduates who can do something useful without spending two years as a drain on their resources whilst being trained to be engineers, but the majority of university degree courses provide very little in the way of preparation for real-world engineering.
In the end I felt I was doing more to further privilege than to break it down. I never went into academia for the money (though it isn’t as bad as academics sometimes make out). I wanted to make a difference. In doing so, I met others with the same aspirations, who had spent sometimes entire careers trying and failing to change the system. Even for people with, admittedly, far more diplomacy and better social skills than me, it seems that the most which can be achieved is some limited local success, and a highlighting of the issues.
Added to this, I believe that academic engineering has become so divorced from the profession that it cannot even conceive of the necessary changes to get back to a position where it is as related to the discipline it is named after as say medicine, or law.
So, I have found myself leaving academia at the point where I obtained a PhD, rather than joining. Along the way I collected all the traditional ‘markers of esteem’: I am or have been a Fellow of three professional institutions, (and Member of the ruling council of one of them); I am or have been a Chartered Engineer, Professional Engineer, European Engineer, and two or three different kinds of professor; I have a decent publications record.
In summary, I’m credible as a senior traditional academic, but I no longer want any part of that business (and it is a business, make no mistake). Based on my experiences, I very much doubt the sincerity of claims that academia wishes to address the needs of industry, or attract a truly diverse intake to engineering courses. There is just too much self-interest in maintaining the status quo and it is this self-interest which is the greatest barrier towards improving the relevance and inclusivity of engineering education.
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