Can a new university close the gender gap in engineering?

A new model aiming for equal numbers of women and men. Engineer image via SpeedKingz/www.shutterstock.com

Fashioning itself as the “first purpose-built university in the UK for 30 years”, the New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMITE) aims to “radically evolve the way technology and engineering are taught to undergraduates”. NMITE will be based in Hereford, with the intention to open in 2017-18 with around 300 undergraduates, expanding to 5,000 students by 2027. It can’t quite call itself a university yet – NMITE will have to approved by the privy council, which will take some time.

Backed by the universities of Bristol and Warwick and Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, NMITE will focus on teaching, rather than on gaining research funding. The economic rationale for the project is based on the well-publicised shortage of technology and engineering graduates in the UK, as well as supporting local economic development in Herefordshire.

Gender balance

NMITE will also focus on increasing the number of female graduates in technology and engineering. Its website says the aim is to admit an equal number of women and men to the programme, with a similar profile for faculty members, but there are no clear answers as yet on how they will go about this. They may find it difficult to obtain gender equality, especially if other universities' technology and engineering departments are anything to go by.

Looking at undergraduate degrees, women do study science subjects – particularly in human and veterinary medicine, and dentistry. However, the percentage of women studying technology and engineering at university remains stubbornly low. According to the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Authority, women made up 39% of all enrolments in science subjects in 2013-14. At undergraduate engineering level, the percentage was even lower, at 24%. The table below helps illustrate the gap.

Technology and engineering are very female-light. Department for Education

At GCSE level, due to the structure of the curriculum, there are almost equal numbers of male and female students studying all three sciences. But as the graph below shows, this balance changes at A Level. While biology continues to appeal to both genders, chemistry and physics – along with maths and computing – attracts a significantly lower percentage of female students.

Percentage of girls and boys taking A Level subjects in 2014. Carol Davenport, data from JCQ

The likelihood is that NMITE will end up with a similar composition, with a very male-dominated student population. This is certainly what has happened to the University Technical Colleges (UTC), a form of free school for 14 to 19-year-olds funded by the Department for Education. Many of these UTCs focused on technology and engineering, and have a student population which is predominantly male. One of the few that isn’t is the Liverpool Life Science UTC which, as its name suggests, focuses on pathways into life science careers such as medicine, healthcare and animal sciences.

Start early

Unfortunately for NMITE, the answer to gender equality probably lies much earlier in the educational journey of young people. The longitudinal ASPIRES project at King’s College London, which looks into maths and science education, found that although many young people enjoy science, even at the age of ten they don’t see it as being something that “people like me” do. The ASPIRES research team recommended that careers information and activities start earlier, in primary school, not in Year 9, and that the idea of science careers need to be embedded into everyday lessons.

Unless NMITE works with primary schools, that isn’t something that they’ll have much influence on. And even if they do work with primary schools, they won’t reap the benefit for at least seven years.

But there is good news: their approach to teaching engineering and technology may appeal to female students. In its 2006 report, Girls in the Physics classroom: A teachers guide for action, the Institute of Physics identified a number of useful similarities in schools where high numbers of girls chose to study physics.

The report said these schools give pupils a glimpse of the “big picture” by reinforcing links between topics, key ideas and their applications wherever possible. The schools also tried tackling applications first, and then the principles behind them, so that the rationale for studying a topic were clearer throughout.

NMITE’s approach of creating a curriculum with a focus first on applied engineering rather than theory may provide the big picture and the practical application that appeal more to women. Part of the degree will be called “human interaction”, with a focus on a liberal education akin to a broad-based liberal arts degree in which students learn about “the historical, cultural, political and ethical context of technology and engineering” alongside employability and communication skills. This may also help improve the gender balance. Or, of course, they could simply include life sciences in their curriculum as well.