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What trends and developments do 70 engineering deans in Europe care about most?

Updated: Jan 29, 2020

Deans of engineering programmes face a wide range of rapid developments. Interdisciplinary engineering research and education are gaining momentum. Yet, teachers and researchers are struggling with the boundaries that are created by departments and faculties, and current metrics for performance do not appraise interdisciplinary work. Universities are being confronted with large increases in number and diversity of their students, both in terms of culture and motivation. Yet, resources do not increase accordingly, and selection is not always accepted. There is the question to unbundle complete curricula to create dedicated knowledge packages instead for on-demand training. Emerging technologies are picked up for the support, production and assessment of courses. The societal digital transformation with the rise of MOOCs and other online education put the future of campus education in a new perspective.

Seventy deans of engineering faculties across Europe discussed these themes. It was one of the rare occasions where I sensed a shared urgency to change and a concern about a lack of willingness to change.

“Universities are at risk; we are insufficiently engaged with the external world and focus too much internally; we have to make ourselves more resilient in order to survive; we need strong leadership” Jan Gulliksen, dean of School Computer Science and Communication at KTH said in his keynote.

European Convention of Engineering Deans / University Leaders Dialogue

Seventy deans and chief executive officers convened at the annual ECED (European Convention of Engineering Deans)/ ULD (University Leaders Dialogue) meeting in Munich on April 3 and 4, 2017. Technische Universitӓt München was the host of the meeting that was organised by CESAER (the Conference of European Schools for Advanced engineering Education and Research) and SEFI (the European Society for Engineering Education). My home university TU Delft was represented by Rector Magnificus prof. Karel Luyben, who is  also the President of CESAER, and Vice-Rector prof. Peter Wieringa. On behalf of the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education (4TU.CEE) Perry den Brok from TU Eindhoven and I attended this conference.

The deans discussed the three major topics of research, education and governance. The first topic mainly dealt with how to support and appraise research that engages in interdisciplinary engineering, in a reality where metrics and other rewards are mainly gained via disciplinary systems. The third topic dealt with the type of leadership that is needed in universities to support new streams of research and innovations in education, especially in this age of high volatility and uncertainty. In this post I focus on the topic of education, although I do not want to detach it from the discussions about research and governance. Interesting youtube contributions from participating deans about research and education are available at the ECED 2017 website. A video from the BEST (Board of European Students in Technology), presented by Alexia Spyridonidou, gives an interesting insight in the priorities and expectations the young millennial generation has about their education and prospective career.

Participants of the ECED/ULD in Munich. Aldert Kamp and Perry den Brok from 4TU.CEE are on the left and front of the picture, see red arrow (Source: TU Munich)

Emerging themes and topics

A question that comes to mind is what topics or themes emerge across the universities of technology in Europe. What developments are going on and what type of initiatives do universities take? From the various speakers and contributions to ECED, the following topics came to the fore.

Crossing disciplinary boundaries Much of today’s innovation requires a proper balance between deep disciplinary knowledge and broad working knowledge of the fundamentals of engineering sciences, humanities and social sciences, supplemented with personal and interpersonal skills. Research-intensive universities are skewed towards deep specialist knowledge and research. Most universities are organised along these lines. Excellence in research can only be achieved by publication scores that require specialism and depth. The dilemma between the horizontal (breadth) and vertical (depth) is being discussed everywhere, over and over again, also at this conference.

The vertical dimension is traditionally well organised and embedded. Its performance parameters can be easily measured and its values can demonstrate world class. The organisation of the horizontal dimension is still messy. Breadth cannot be measured that easily, whilst the need for the horizontal dimension in society is rapidly growing.

Many deans experience the transformation to research and education with more breadth as a tedious and dangerously slow process. The university organisations tend to gravitate back to their disciplinary silos that are so baked into the system that it will take an almighty alteration to deal it a serious blow. Appraisal cycles still award individual achievements by measuring individual performance of number and h-index of publications. Teaching is at risk for sure, because it is not a focus in any ranking management. Some fragments from the discussions: “If we do not make innovativeness and interdisciplinary collaboration an explicit part of the annual appraisal, it’s never going to happen”; “We get what we measure”; “Templates for recruiting academic staff are getting narrower and narrower, whilst we say in our policy documents that we aim for more diversity in cultures and backgrounds, including people from the non-academic world”. “To make change happen needs leadership by people who dare to take risks. It’s questionable whether we have such people onboard at the right organisational levels.”

Societal impact instead of individual achievements

Impact on society is mainly achieved by teamwork. We should therefore make the measuring and awarding of impact the new norm. But, the deans said, we miss a clear yard stick and instruments to do so. How can we measure graduates’ preparedness for the future? How can we measure the level of student innovativeness, or the real impact of commercialisation of research, or the value of innovation that can be attributed specifically to collaboration? Since we cannot measure and compare these impacts, it has become common practice to measure parameters that can be easily measured like headcounts, number of publications, h-index, number of start-ups, number of proposals. But these do not tell us anything about the real value of innovativeness of a university.

“We need to develop realistic teamwork, not heroic individuals”

The deans shared the viewpoint that creating impact on future society increasingly requires  interdisciplinary and holistic thinking. We cannot start early enough to awaken curiosity beyond our own discipline. We should not wait till the tenure or PhD trajectories, but already start the development of this mindset in the Bachelor’s and Master’s. “Remember, the biggest impact we have on society is the students we educate.”

T-shaped professionals

I heard a loud call from many deans to transform engineering education into educating T-shaped engineering professionals. These are people who have a deep working knowledge in their own discipline and have learnt to communicate and collaborate in teams with professionals from other domains and non-experts. I must acknowledge that I found the discussion about teaming T-shaped professionals a bit confusing. T-shaped professionals were said to be necessary to build teams as spoked wheels. They were said to collaborate with their broad communicative skills developed in the arm of the T, but can only converge their ideas through the deep disciplinary knowledge of maths, physics and engineering sciences, as acquired in the bar of specialisation of the T. I don’t know whether I completely agree. The spoked wheel is to me the metaphor for an interdisciplinary team.

The spoked wheel metaphor for an interdisciplinary team (interconnecting disciplines) and the gear wheel metaphor for a multidisciplinary team (connecting disciplines but doing their own thing)

A multidisciplinary team looks more as a gear wheel. These are teams where T-shaped professionals collaborate on the basis of their broad communicative skills and engineering fundamentals, but keep doing their own thing, solving problems and designing of solutions in their own discipline, sometimes touching upon the specialisms of other domains, possibly in other teams.


With the above in mind, more and more interdisciplinary courses, projects or curricula are being developed, often preceded by interdisciplinary research projects or groups. Interesting challenges that teachers face in such context are how to integrate different topics or domains, how to motivate students from different domains, and how to assess interdisciplinary tasks with teachers that are often experts in one domain.

Different engineering profiles

I noticed an emphasis on the fact that an engineering programme might consider to educate a range of engineers, with different professional profiles, for example the technology-oriented engineer, the society-oriented engineer, or the entrepreneurial engineer. This thinking matches well with the outcome of the 4TU.CEE “Free Spirits” Think Tank at TU Delft.  One unique engineering profile does no longer fit all students in a programme.

“Training soft skills has become an integral part of the engineering fundamentals, just like mathematics, physics and engineering sciences”

Thus it was not surprising that the deans identified the need to personalise intended learning outcomes and accommodate individual learning paths by collaborative learning in multi- and interdisciplinary teams. The question rose how smart we are able to describe such intended learning outcomes and assess the soft and academic skills that will be the basis for the diversification of the professional engineering profiles.

Break-out session about the future of education (Source: TU Munich)

Students as change agents

A fundamental problem in universities is the level of conservatism. “We are not going to change our university in five years, not in 20 years either”. The deans said time has come that remaining static bears more risk than moving, even if it is not clear in which direction we should move. The emergence of Über-type universities is on the horizon.

The deans suggested that possibly students could make cultural change in universities happen. Student populations change typically every three years. The meeting stressed several times that we should try and give the students the opportunities to make disruptive changes in education by initiating and prioritising collaborative and interdisciplinary projects instead of enforcing them to take part in individual mono-disciplinary projects. Thus students  could become the driver for change. They might be in the position to bring professors to the future.

Many of today’s students in Northwest Europe have already got used to multidisciplinary and collaborative learning in their pre-university education. They have a mindset of co-creation, want to create the future and design solutions for societal relevant challenges. Millennial students do things differently. They are eager to develop cross-disciplinary projects and ideas by themselves. During our 4TU.CEE study trip to ETH-Zurich in March I had heard about a “Space for your ideas” project, in which students are stimulated to propose innovations in their education and help in the selection of best ideas. Of course, students will always need a mastermind to develop innovative curricula. Creating a new educational culture and freeing up space in curricula cannot be developed bottom-up alone.

In this context the deans emphasised the need to train the students an entrepreneurial mindset (see also my blogpost about Entrepreneurial Behaviour) and more adaptive capacity to get out on a limb for such cultural change.

Integration of skills in disciplinary curricula

Many engineering universities consider to transform the qualifications of their degree programmes into competence qualifications, and relate these to the curricular elements. They are struggling how to integrate the training and assessment of competences into their disciplinary curricula. Such competences include intercultural communication or collaboration, entrepreneurial behaviour, and  professional engineering skills, such as systems thinking, creativity and design thinking. These have to be embedded and should not be added as a cherry on top of the cake.

Specials hubs of excellence, or makerspaces have proven to be excellent breeding places for students to collaborate in interdisciplinary teams or hackathons, develop prototypes, or mentor start-ups. Students, professors and other academic staff, industrial experts, entrepreneurs and authorities feel attracted and meet and create an appealing place where students learn the many skills that are gaining importance in tomorrow’s world of work. The success of the Skylab (DTU, Copenhagen) has demonstrated that students stimulate each other to learn deep mathematics, engineering sciences, design and research skills and (inter)personal skills in a logical order and in a combined effort when the need is there. This is what Marianne Thellersen, Senior Vice President – Innovation & Entrepreneurship of DTU told us.


DTU Skylab

Reading the above about hubs of excellence, it is not surprising that we observe a clear trend that many universities experiment with makerspaces and living labs, in which students collaborate in interdisciplinary teams on authentic complex challenging projects that are relevant for society. Learning in these spaces connects knowledge to life,  so that learning sticks better through emotional connection. Such makerspaces and living labs become “competence centres” where students take advantage of the physical spaces and the real-life interactions with customers, and interweave learning, doing research and learn about innovation (see also my blogpost about the role of labs and makerspaces in engineering education).

More in general, I see a clear trend towards more student-oriented education, with emphasis on deep learning, a range of opportunities for freedom of choice for the students, and student-centred teaching methods. Examples of maker spaces can be found at Aalborg and other Scandinavian universities. During a recent study trip in March 2017 by the 4TU.CEE board members to EPFL in Lausanne I encountered the interesting initiative of Discovery Learning.  The Discovery Learning Lab (DLL) makes experimental and manufacturing facilities available in one central building for all students and academic staff of any discipline. It creates excellent opportunities for interdisciplinary ideas and project work. In future it may simply not be possible to have equipment that cost many millions of euros in different places. Sharing them between faculties or universities make them affordable, and the increasing capabilities of data storage and data transfer make  this possible.

Societal and industrial engagement

Throughout the conference meeting I heard the call to include more societal and industrial engagement in engineering education and research. European universities feel relatively little urgency to make societal contributions. many universities may have to shift research even more than today, from curiosity-driven research to applied research. We have to put university knowledge more at the service of solving the major societal challenges.

“Students who have never been in contact with industry are not prepared for the world of work”. Universities become aware that they have to provide students experiential learning opportunities in which they collaborate with companies and authorities and learn from alumni and other role models. Such experiences may involve outreach, but also deal with guest visits or lectures, internships, participation in living labs, or specific professional development programmes. During the 4TU.CEE Swiss study trip I observed that EPFL attracts and locates big innovative companies on campus to join the ecosystem of innovation. If forms an excelent breeding place for workplace learning by the engineering students.

At the ECED conference TU Delft presented their plan to initiate an interdisciplinary student research project “Cool down the planet” that builds upon the initiatives and successes of the student-led D:DREAM student projects. In earlier conferences I also heard about initiatives for so-called citizen science projects, where citizens, possibly from all over the world, are involved in the collection of data on certain phenomena such as nature, health, safety, mobility.

The panel discussion about the outcomes of the 2016 convention in the London Agenda among other things proposed to treat students as young engineers already during their study, as a matter of lifelong learning. In engineering practice engineers learn from their senior colleagues. Why not incorporate this dimension in our teaching through peer instruction for and by students?

Also sabbaticals for academic staff were identified as interesting opportunities to import more societal and industrial engagement into the curriculum. Some of the deans expressed their concerns that the best academics might not return from their sabbaticals because of their exposure to a potentially more attractive work atmosphere in the external world…

Universities in 2040

Throughout the meetings the question was raised as to whether universities of technology would still exist in 2040, if they continue with their current education and rate of change. The conference made it more than clear that they will certainly be unable to do so in its current form. We have to expect major changes, not only in what and how we teach, but also how we offer our curricula as complete and coherent 2- or 3-year course packages, and what the physical make-up of the campus university has to be. More and more examples become already visible in which students demand partial programmes, compose their own knowledge packages, obtain certificates and degrees via a Do-It-Yourself approach in alternative study programmes. Graduates from these individually tailored programmes are expected to be favourite in the selection process by company recruiters. Universities have to look seriously ahead to the future, in particular in terms of the on-campus experiences they intend to provide.

Dinner in the Ratskeller of Munich (Source: TU Munich)

It was repeated many times that if we do not succeed in integrating innovation and interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration in the recruitment process of young academic staff or in the annual appraisal cycle, universities will loose ground and change is not going to happen.

Upon my return home my attention was drawn to a newsletter in the 16 April 2017 University World News Global Edition. The emergent and expanding direction for university education could become “competency-based” certification. It allows students to move as rapidly as they wish through a programme to acquire the competencies that are needed for a professional engineering profile. They can be attained without obligatory presence on campus. The newsletter mentions that “one such programme is already offered by the private company StraighterLine (“Online College Courses That Fit Into Your Degree”). It has a basic fee for mastering materials that are certified by third parties and acceptable for transfer to a number of traditionally accredited universities to be applied to a degree”. It does not have so many engineering or technology courses yet, but shows how rapid developments go. Über-type universities are already rising on the horizon. They accommodate the increasing demand for differentiation with tailored content.

The Munich Message

The “Munich Message” contains the key statements of the leadership dialogue of the Convention. They are available here.


In 2018 the ECED/ULD will be held at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. The approximately 15 Munich Statements about Education, Research and Governance, that developed into the headlines at the convention in Munich and are partly addressed in this blog post, will be elaborated and developed into strategic actions for the university boards. These actions have to pave a way to more agile and future-proof universities.

CESAER Taskforce Scientific Engineering Education

CESAER, the organising body of the conference, also initiated a taskforce to formulate a vision on scientific engineering education as input to discussions about policy of higher education in the European Commission. At the conference the 4TU.CEE was invited to play an active role in this taskforce. A first meeting with the members of the taskforce is scheduled at TU Eindhoven on May 12, 2017.


This post is a more comprehensive and personalised version of the post that has been published on the weblog of 4TU Centre for Engineering Education by prof. Perry den Brok, who is my 4TU.CEE teammate from the Eindhoven University of Technology.


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