Fellow Kam Chan Hin
Nanyang Technological University
The Academy of Engineering, Singapore (SAEng) Project Group on Reviving Student Interest in Engineering met for the first time on 24 April 2012 at the Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES). Also present were representatives of Design Singapore Council who were invited by Professor Hang Chang Chieh to help plan the overall approach to study and discover the factors influencing students’ choice of study. It was noted that the problem was not localised and that many engineering universities worldwide also faced the same declining interest of students in taking up engineering programmes.
Some of the reasons cited for students not taking up engineering programmes include tedious and tough curriculum, low pay and recognition, lack of clear understanding of what an engineer does and the ‘boring’ image perceived by students.
The problem statements identified are:
1) What students are looking for in higher education?
2) Why students are not pursuing engineering education
3) What is the role of engineers in society?
It was agreed that the project was timely and that an engineering education is valuable as it provides a broad based education and many opportunities to pursue careers in other areas such as banking and finance. It was also noted that there were several groups looking at the same problem. In particular, an IES Task Force on Engineering Education with several members who are also Academy Fellows, had been brainstorming the issue.
In a meeting with the Project Team and representatives from Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Ministry of Education, Economic Development Board and members of the IES Task Force on Engineering Education, Kevin Seow of MOM shared the findings of a survey carried out by MOM on the issue. The results of the survey showed that Engineering has seen a declining share of top A level students. Furthermore, a decreasing proportion of Science students opted to study engineering. There was also significant occupational leakage as compared to other occupations. An interesting observation was the high level of regret of respondents who would have preferred to study in a different course in retrospect. It was also observed that despite being a more demanding and professional course, the profession commands only median salaries. A lively discussion on the causes for the lack of interest in engineering took place. Reasons cited include the lack of prestige in the profession, the relatively low pay and rewards of top engineers as compared to their counterparts in the other professions such as Medicine, Law and Accountancy. In view of the substantial overlap of the study with the IES Task Force on Engineering Education, there was a suggestion to merge the study by the two groups.
In the recent third Annual General Meeting of the Academy, members questioned the effectiveness of setting quotas to address Singapore’s need for trained engineers. It was pointed out that there was a need to consider related issues such as the outflow of trained engineers into other service sectors and the declining demand for places in the engineering programmes offered by the local universities. The pay disparity between engineering and business graduates was highlighted again as a contributory factor to the discipline’s declining demand. There was also a need to consider this against a range of other factors such as the effect on business operating costs. There was a call to re-think the teaching of sciences and mathematics and in particular, to restore the mandatory teaching of physics in the school syllabus and the inclusion of more hands-on modules to stimulate interest. It was also important to mandate the quality of engineers as a core imperative. This can be achieved through a review and re-vamp of the current engineering curriculum, and the inclusion of early industry exposure to entrench students within the engineering profession.
The industry must also support and back these suggested initiatives for it to succeed.