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I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Widening the pipeline: reconsidering entry requirements for engineering

It was International Women's Day this week, celebrated in force at UCL. I went along to a few events, and two of them have got me thinking about physics, girls and engineering. My thinking led me to do some calculations. I am now more convinced than ever that requiring physics A-level for engineering is a bad idea. If we dropped this requirement it is possible that we could double the number of women undergraduates in engineering, without undermining standards.

Alexa Bruce, a former student, spoke to our department on Tuesday. Alexa graduated with a first class MEng, was a founding member and twice president of UCL Engineers Without Borders, now works for Arup, and is a bit of a star. Alexa didn't study physics at A-level. She told us that at the age of 16 she wanted to be an actor, not an engineer, so didn't bother with physics. She soon changed her mind, only to find that nearly all civil engineering schools require physics A-level, except UCL. Based on her good GCSE physics results, and good A-level results in the subjects that she had taken, we offered her a place. Lucky for Alexa, luckier for us. Alexa was very clear in her message that requiring physics A-level for undergraduate engineering is a massive, unnecessary barrier to women who are forced to make career defining decisions much too early in their lives.

On Thursday Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, astrophycist and scientific superstar, told UCL Women that around 20% of A-level physics students are women. Nearly half of state schools and colleges in the UK have no women in their A-level physics classes. I'll write that again, in capitals. NEARLY HALF OF A-LEVEL PHYSICS CLASSES IN THE UK HAVE NO WOMEN STUDENTS.

There are lots of reasons why girls don't study physics and lots of reason why that needs to change. The Institute of Physics, Dame Jocelyn and many others are on the case, but it is unlikely that we will see a major step change soon. There are big, heavy cultural factors at play, like ye-olde stereotyping, as well as some basic practical measures, like improving the quality of physics teaching.

One very important consequence of requiring physics A-level to study engineering, in a country where so few girls choose physics, is that we constrain the pool of talented women for our profession to draw from. Women like Alexa.

Colleagues will argue that you can't do engineering without physics A-level. Alexa is proof that you can. She had A-level maths and chemistry, and good GCSE physics. She is smart and hard working. Whatever was missing from her knowledge of physics, she managed to pick up very quickly at university.

Alexa could have studied chemical engineering at most universities. Chemical engineering courses usually require maths and chemistry, not physics.

Chemical engineering provides a good case for considering the impact of physics A-level requirements for undergraduate engineering. Nearly three times as many women in the UK take A-level chemistry compared to physics. Roughly 48% of students who achieved A*-C results in A-level chemistry were women in 2012, compared to 22% in physics, and 21% in both maths and physics. That same year, 25% of acceptances to study first degrees in chemical engineering in the UK were women, compared to 13% for all engineering. In 2012 in civil and environmental engineering at UCL, where we have no subject requirements at A-level, 30% of our undergraduates were women compared to 16% nationally.

Engineering needs more women undergraduates. We have a choice. We can stick with the requirement for physics, and wait for schools and physicists to sort out their mess, or we could drop physics A-level requirements. My quick analysis of the data indicates that this single measure could double the proportion of women undergraduates in engineering.

Dropping physics as an entry requirement has not diminished the quality of our degrees in civil engineering at UCL. Our degree programmes are fully accredited for UK engineering professional requirements. This is the fundamental standard against which engineering courses in the UK are judged. We have not 'dumbed down' our course content. It turns out that whatever students learn in A-level physics isn't critical to succeeding in civil engineering. I suspect the same is true for most disciplines. 

Undergraduate entry requirements aren't the only thing in the way of gender equality in engineering, but they are something. This is one very simple change that our universities can make that could have a significant impact. It's certainly worth a shot.

My sources of data were the Engineering UK annual reports for 2013 and 2015.