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The Problem With Chemical Engineering Education

Chemical Engineering Education

Any experienced engineer who has been asked to make new chemical engineering graduates into assets rather than a drain on resources knows that universities are turning out graduates without a basic knowledge of our profession.

They can’t read a P+ID, lay out plant, or size a pump. In fact they aren’t very clear on what a pump is, how many different kinds of pumps there are, or what they are used for. They know nothing useful about process control, though they can do you a Laplace transform. And so on.

Why is this? There were only 54 chartered chemical engineers between all 25 UK chemical engineering departments at last count, and many of them never actually designed or operated a process plant. There are far more chemists in chemical engineering departments than engineers. You can’t expect them to teach what they don’t know.

Those on the accreditation panels who should be keeping curricula relevant to the profession are mostly other academics, drawn from the pool of non-engineers who work in chemical engineering departments. The IChemE’s accreditation committee and council are disproportionately such academics too. There has been a failure of oversight, due to those who should be being monitored themselves becoming the monitors.

Engineers are the oompa loompas of science

What professional engineers many not be aware of is that the continuing massive oversupply of such unskilled grads has led to the present situation, of unemployment and underemployment of 50% of chemical engineering grads. Academia turns a tin ear to this, choosing to believe that those who don’t find work as engineers get “great jobs in the city”, a pleasant delusion which is not borne out by the statistics.

The IChemE are still denying the reality of oversupply of chemical engineering grads, even though the Government’s Wakeham Review of STEM degree provision and graduate employability told them in May 2106 that there was high graduate unemployment in Chemical and Process Engineering, "especially for high tariff institutions" (research led universities).

The IChemE claimed that their own dodgy data on graduate starting salaries meant that there could be no oversupply, but BP's golden handcuffs for the "top" grads tell us nothing about the state of play for the average green graduate. The institution needs to get real, and stop acting as a cheerleader for greedy universities who are overemphasising both job prospects and irrelevant research.

We as professional engineers need to stop cooperating with academia until they start teaching a more realistic curriculum. Getting us in to give a talk with the students is all too often seen as a bit of storytelling. To quote a UK academic on this subject:

Industrial input is a valued optional extra. Most practitioners are great at telling tales, but can’t be relied on providing the, yes, scientific backbone that differentiates a good graduate from a plant operator, technician or draughtsman.

They think we are the oompah-loompahs of science...

Here’s a simple rule to see if your time is well spent giving a visiting lecture: if what you tell the students isn’t being assessed, they aren’t really going to be listening, and neither they nor the university is taking your input seriously

Sean Moran

Sean is a chemical engineer of twenty-five years standing with a water and environmental engineering specialisation. His background is in the design, commissioning and troubleshooting of sewage, indus

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