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Engineering the Future

China works to overhaul its engineering education system to train talent for emerging industries

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

China now has the largest contingent of engineering students at universities in the world, according to Chinese government data. Alongside rapid progress in science and technology, it has become an increasingly urgent challenge to train more talented engineers worldwide. 

China’s Ministry of Education (MOE) recently issued an action plan to initiate 612 academic programs in the engineering field at universities nationwide with a focus on  areas including big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and smart manufacturing. The so-called “New Engineering” projects at universities have thus entered the implementation phase, kicking off China’s reform and innovation of engineering education.  

On February 18, 2017, a seminar on engineering education at comprehensive universities was held at Shanghai’s Fudan University. More than 100 scholars were gathered to debate the system for training engineering students before reaching a consensus on the way forward. Since then, the concept of “New Engineering” has been under the spotlight in academia. 

On April 8, the MOE released guidelines for New Engineering projects with three goals in the coming decades: creating a paradigm of New Engineering that fits in with new technology, industries and economic development by 2020; developing a world-leading engineering education system to facilitate sci-tech innovation by 2030, and becoming the center of engineering innovation and talent training worldwide by 2050. On June 9, a 30-strong expert committee from universities, enterprises and research institutes came into being. 
Center of Innovation
“It’s rare in the history of Chinese higher education that several major action plans on the engineering sector were unveiled in less than four months,” Wang Yiqiu, former vice-president of Peking University, told NewsChina. The New Engineering projects have become a major reform and overhaul of China’s engineering education to boost emerging disciplinary fields. 

Wu Aihua, director of the Science and Engineering Department of the MOE, told our reporter that alongside China’s industrial restructuring and upgrading, some engineering students in traditional industries find it hard to land a job at a time of overcapacity in many fields. On the other hand, she added, the booming sectors in AI and big data are thirsty for graduates. 

According to a white paper on global AI talent in 2017, released by the Tencent Research Institute (Tencent is one of China’s major tech companies), there are only 300,000 AI professionals in the world, and in China alone the skills gap is at least one million. To make matters worse, it takes much more time to train an AI engineer than an IT talent, so this gap is not likely to be eased soon. 

AI is not the only sector in China suffering from a serious talent shortage. According to the Guidelines on Talent Training in the Manufacturing Sector, which were issued by the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, sectors including new-generation information technology, electric equipment, numerically-controlled machine tools, robotics and new materials will experience shortages of staff by 2020.  

Yet against the backdrop of this talent crunch, college students are fleeing traditional engineering courses. In 2017, Cuaa.Net, a private consultancy on China’s higher education, released a survey that tracked the best performers in China’s national college entrance examinations (gaokao) over the past 10 years, finding that nearly 40 percent of top scorers ended up studying economics and management-related subjects at university. In comparison with popular subjects like finance, the starting salaries of many engineering graduates are relatively low and engineering disciplines are currently out of favor with students. 

“Engineering education is undergoing a transition from science-based to being based more on real-world needs,” Yu Dongsheng, a professor at the Education Research Institute at the Wuhan-based Huazhong University of Science and Technology, told NewsChina. He said the New Engineering program will prioritize practice and design instead of theory and knowledge, which aims to solve the talent imbalance between supply and demand. 

According to the Quality Report on China’s Engineering Education released by the MOE in October 2017, China tops the world in the number of engineering students it enrolls, three to five times more than the number in Russia and the US. Nevertheless, there is great room to train talent for emerging industries. 
Rebooting the System
The New Engineering plan seems to have gained traction among the public now, although rebooting the engineering education system started more than a decade ago.  

China started building an engineering education accreditation system in 2006, and in 2016, China joined the Washington Accord, which was launched in 1989 by professional civil engineering groups from six countries including the US, UK, and Canada, aiming to allow international recognition of chartered engineers.  

Wu Aihua, an official at the Science and Engineering Department of the MOE, told NewsChina that China has been aligning itself to the standards of the Washington Accord – where the concepts of being student-centered, production-orientated and of continuous improvement have become the norm in engineering education.  

By the end of 2017, the MOE and the China Engineering Education Accreditation Association had jointly accredited 846 engineering programs in 21 categories at 198 universities nationwide, and it is expected to cover all categories by 2020. The New Engineering reform has five new features: concepts in engineering education, structures in disciplines, patterns in talent training, teaching qualities and education systems. 

Wu said the focus of the New Engineering program is to establish a training pattern to meet the new era’s industrial demands. New Engineering is actually a continuation of China’s Outstanding Engineer Training Project, she said, which was launched in 2010 through the establishment of joint training programs by universities and enterprises. 

The School of Precision Instruments & Opto-Electronics Engineering under Tianjin University is a pilot institution of the engineer training project. Each student is assigned a tutor and the disciplinary silos of mechanisms, optics, information sciences, computers are broken. The school adopted a “3+1” training pattern, where students spend three years at the university and one year at overseas universities or at companies. 

In 2018, Tianjin University established China���s first academic program for intelligent medical engineering and will enroll 30 undergraduate students in September. These students will receive instruction from staff at the university and Tianjin Medical University. Students will be awarded two diplomas in medical science and engineering after graduation, and they will be instilled with medical knowledge, clinical practice and capabilities to solve medical problems with cutting-edge engineering technology. 

Tianjin University will also conduct cooperation with enterprises including Tencent and NXP Semiconductors to establish a New Engineering Pilot Class to train leading talent in areas of the Internet+ (a China-proposed model of digital and industrial integration), big data and AI.  
“New Engineering projects aren’t just being implemented in academia, a growing number of enterprises have joined in,” Wu said. To date, 346 enterprises have released 14,576 collaboration programs between industry and universities with funding of over 3.5 billion yuan (US$530m). 

In recent years, there has been a global push to reform engineering education to better adapt to the current needs of industrial development and upgrading. In March 2018, MIT released its Global Engineering Education Report in which it stated that three trends are likely to define the future of engineering education.  

The first is that the leadership of global engineering education is likely to switch from the US and Europe to countries in South America and Asia. The second is a shift toward programs that integrate student-centered learning to address the challenges of the future. The third is the emergence of a new generation of leaders capable of delivering student-centered curricula on a large scale. 

China, through the construction of New Engineering projects, is perfectly positioning itself to transform from a participant to a contributor or even a leader in global engineering education reform, Wu stressed.
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