Engineering the Future


Published April 2018

The Government has designated 2018 as the Year of Engineering, providing a timely backdrop to some exciting and innovative developments at the University. These include plans to open a major new facility for engineering, technology and health – the Kent and Medway Engineering, Design, Growth and Enterprise (EDGE) Hub – by 2020 as Christ Church looks to expand its course provision in the areas of science, technology and engineering. Inspire talked to Professor Helen James, Senior Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education, Enhancement and Student Experience), about her path-breaking career as a female engineer and how she hopes that the EDGE Hub will be an attraction for a whole new generation of engineers in the region.

Although the engineering industry continues to play a vital role in the UK economy, there is currently a shortfall of qualified engineering graduates and a lack of diversity in the profession – women, for example, make up only 11% of the engineering workforce (WISE, 2017). This tallies with Helen’s own experience, as she recalls: “I grew up in Barrow-in-Furness, a working class town with a strong iron and steel heritage and a local economy dominated by the shipyard. I attended secondary school and wasn’t expected to go to university. Work was gendered; women’s work was low paid and in retail. I was the eldest of four children and in a single parent household, so the whole dimension of paid work was crucially important to me. I was acutely aware that men were engineers and, as they managed to support families, the wages must be good. I also really loved maths and physics, and so thought I could make a good living out of being an engineer.

“I really loved maths and physics, and so thought I could make a good living out of being an engineer.”

“I was really lucky that the shipyard was on my doorstep and they recruited apprentices every year. In addition, the Equal Pay Act 1970 provided the impetus for the shipyard to open up its recruitment to women. So, in 1978, I left school at 16 to become one of the first five women to be chosen by the shipyard as a mechanical engineer apprentice; I was the only non-grammar school pupil.

“I absolutely loved my experience as an apprentice. I really enjoyed the practical skills development – I worked on the high-security testing of submarine engines, as well as field guns, building the Sea Dart and the Sea Wolf missile launchers, and the heat treatment of huge gear wheels. People were just so generous with their time because there was a real respect between the journeyman and the apprentice, and everyone took the training aspect very seriously.”

However, towards the end of Helen's apprenticeship when she would end up in the drawing office, she realised that going to university offered her the escape route that by then she was desperately seeking: “The shipyard sponsored me to go to university and, in addition, I received a full maintenance grant, without which I wouldn’t have been able to go. I went to the University of Leicester to study general engineering because at that point I didn't know if I might have enjoyed civil engineering or electrical/electronics more than mechanical and manufacturing. However, I loved the mechanical side so that’s what I specialised in.”

After that, Helen worked at Marconi Space Systems as an environmental engineer and then moved into systems engineering, which included work on the development of the first-ever Earth Remote Sensing Satellite (ERS-1). Following this, she moved into further education teaching and then various positions in higher education, including establishing a new Business Services department at the University of Brighton and supporting the creation of a new university in north east Wales, before joining Christ Church.

“Engineering engages you with life. It’s about contributing to everyday things and making a real contribution to society.”

Helen supports the Government’s Year of Engineering campaign, which aims to transform the way in which young people view the profession, tackle the major national and gender skills gap, and inspire the engineers of tomorrow through a series of activities and events celebrating the wonder of engineering. She is a passionate advocate for engineering as a discipline and a profession: “I think it’s a profession that engages you with life. It’s about contributing to everyday things and making a real contribution to society. Engineering opens up so many opportunities for people. The diversity of the types of engineering you can engage with and the jobs you can go on to do when you have an engineering qualification is just immense. People sometimes think of it as a very technical subject. Clearly there are technical aspects, but engineers are problem solvers, teamworkers and collaborators – they are people who will compromise, optimise across solutions and get things done.”

It was Helen’s commitment and clear strategic vision that helped to drive forward the plans to create the EDGE Hub at Christ Church. This is an ambitious and far-reaching initiative, designed to unlock regional and economic growth and employment in engineering, science and technology sectors. Together with industry partners, the University has developed a new exciting model to deliver STEM education, enterprise and research to help expand the region's inward investment potential.

The EDGE Hub supports the Government’s new Industrial Strategy’s focus on science, engineering and technology as economic drivers. Plans to develop the Hub were given the Government’s seal of approval with major funding allocations, totalling over £13 million, from the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) Catalyst Fund, which supports innovation, excellence and efficiency within higher education. The funding will contribute to the construction and equipment costs of the new facility, which will be located in a major new building on the former Canterbury Prison site, with satellite facilities at Discovery Park and in Medway and other parts of Kent.

The facility will provide a new and exciting education offer for the region as the University aims to ignite a passion for science, engineering and technology among future generations, while promoting inclusivity, diversity and innovation. Courses are being designed in partnership with key businesses to respond to real-world opportunities and challenges by nurturing creativity and a talent for problem solving.

Before this successful outcome, there was a lot of hard work, research and considerable networking involved to bring together the various stakeholders and to persuade them to agree on such a large-scale and transformative plan. As Helen explains: “We organised a meeting, chaired by the leader of Kent County Council, which brought together a number of key influential business leaders to the table, where I tested some of my thinking. I prepared a think piece paper, Growing the East Kent Economy through Science, Engineering and Technology, to inform the discussion. Following encouraging feedback from the meeting, we undertook market research. This suggested that the region needed Christ Church to move into engineering because regional students were moving out of the area and weren’t coming back. As a result, regional businesses were not able to recruit local engineering graduates. It felt to me there was quite a compelling economic proposition.

“From that meeting, there was wholehearted support. A crucial aspect of my vision is that it’s not about the University selling engineering, it’s about us working in partnership as a contributor to the region – we are enabling economic development. I think it is this dimension in particular that has really catalysed the energy across the region and why so many people are now adopting the vision.”

“Widening participation is critical. We are the type of institution that can offer the right kind of curriculum as well as reach out to those populations that may not otherwise be thinking about going into engineering or indeed to university.”

Helen is passionate about encouraging other women into the engineering profession and was therefore keen to emphasise – in line with the Government’s thinking on the subject – that it was vital to recruit, train and provide careers for female engineers. She also agreed on the importance of pitching the engineering offer to appeal to creative people as well as students keen on maths and physics. Her strong belief is that “there is a whole load of young people out there who are dismissing engineering as a career when they would make brilliant engineers”.

Christ Church is one of only a handful of universities in the UK to adopt the international Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) CDIO model (Conceive, Design, Implement and Operate) – a dynamic and relevant curriculum that foregrounds creativity in engineering and brings together related subject areas from health and the sciences, the arts and teacher education. The EDGE Hub will offer technical and professional education opportunities in engineering and technology, including degree apprenticeships, and undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the areas of chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, product design and software engineering.


A view of Building 2, which will house the EDGE Hub

To close the national and gender skills gap, the University aims to attract 35% women and 40% of new learners from less advantaged communities to its engineering and technology courses. With its strong track record in widening access to higher education, Christ Church’s comprehensive outreach programme will be extended to inspire a passion for science, engineering and technology among future generations of female and working class students. This aspect is particularly important to Helen: “Widening participation is critical. We are the type of institution that can offer the right kind of curriculum as well as reach out to those populations that may not otherwise be thinking about going into engineering or indeed to university. It is also crucial that the curriculum is appropriate so that graduates leave the University work ready. To do that, we must have partnerships with employers. We need to ensure that employers are involved with the design and delivery of the programmes and that the employers are coming into the University and the students are going out into businesses. I envision a seamless interaction between academics and employers in a way that doesn’t typically happen in universities.”

“I feel that the EDGE Hub will be quite a marker in the University’s history and a symbol of change and growth.”

This partnership will benefit Canterbury and the wider Kent and Medway region by addressing higher level skills shortages in STEM subjects and will critically support regional economic growth. It is estimated to be worth up to £11 million a year to the Kent and Medway economy and will add an additional 1,250 graduates with higher level engineering and technology skills into the labour market by 2024. Helen is delighted that the development has been enthusiastically supported from across the University and its partnering stakeholders: “The EDGE Hub is about partnership, economic development and GDP, and all those factors work brilliantly together. I’m thrilled that it has received so much traction so quickly. It’s hugely exciting, not just because it is engineering but because engineering links with different faculties across the University: product design in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, medical technologies in the Faculty of Health and Wellbeing and science education in the Faculty of Education. It is genuinely a University-wide proposition.

“I am extremely positive and enthusiastic about the venture. I think this development is a huge credit to the University and it’s fantastic that it has catalysed so much energy and positivity – I feel that the EDGE Hub will be quite a marker in the University’s history and a symbol of change and growth. It’s exciting and scary because there is so much that is unknown, but I’m confident it will be a success, especially as we have managed to persuade key businesses and influencers to join us on the journey and our staff and students are simply fantastic.”

Find out more about engineering at Christ Church here.


Last edited: 25/02/2020 10:36:00