Why I am leaving the IET after 25 years

News just in (6th December 2012). Common justice has prevailed and the IET has changed its mind – students living in Scotland and taking Highers will be eligible for Diamond scholarships.  I have decided to withdraw my resignation.

I suspect that this policy change would have been more difficult to achieve without the power of social media.

For many years, I was an active member of the UK Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE). I joined in the late 1980s when they first recognised software engineering as an engineering discipline, regularly attended meetings and was involved in the 1990s in the setting up of a new Informatics Division. For a while, I was Chair of the Informatics Division and even have my name in gold lettering on a board in the IETs rather impressive HQ in Savoy Place, London.

Then the management changed. To save money, support for face to face meetings was abolished and it was assumed that the Divisions could continue as web fora. Dutifully, I joined some of these but it was rather like wandering in the Gobi desert – there was never anyone else around and what material there was, was pretty dry and arid. The software was appalling (no email notifications) so, like most other people, I stopped participating. The new management didn’t understand the importance of Informatics and the whole activity within the IEE was downgraded.

Then, there was a merger with the Institution of Incorporated Engineers – I have no idea what an Incorporated Engineer is – and a name change to the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). So, the Institution took a world-renowned brand (IEE) and changed it to something meaningless that no-one had ever heard of. Many members complained – they were ignored.

However, the ignorance of the value of brands didn’t start there. In the 1980s, the IEE started a new journal called the Software Engineering Journal. They got the timing right here – it rapidly gained acceptance in the research community. It was always thought of as a bit of a magazine rather than an academic journal in the IEE though. This meant that it had a reasonably interesting design and readable typography, unlike the other dull-looking more academic journals.

As the SEJ was successful, it was decided that it should be re-named as IEE Software – the same old story – take an accepted brand and get rid of it. I argued against this to no effect . But I continued supporting the Institution and I served for a while as editor of IEE Software. As no-one had ever heard of this, it was an uphill battle to get submissions and eventually I gave up. I believe that the journal is still in existence but I stopped subscribing many years ago and haven’t read any paper published in it for many years.

I can’t remember the last time I was at an IEE (IET) event, I am not impressed by the way that the Institution has been run, I don’t read IET Software and only occasionally look at their glossy publication for members, ‘Engineering and Technology’. To be fair, I think this is quite well-written with interesting articles but I struggle to find time to read it.

But, in spite of all this, I have carried on paying my annual subscription. I don’t do this because I can put letters after my name (I think this is rather an affectation) or because I get any tangible value from it, but because I believe in principle in the value of professional institutions. I have thought a number of times – what’s the point, but I have always come back to the notion that professional institutions are fundamentally a good thing. They represent a professional community and I have always trusted them to do this without prejudice to any section of that community. I anticipated carrying on supporting the IET for the foreseeable future

But now I have decided that will not renew my IET subscription in 2013. What has changed?

The IET recently introduced a bursary scheme for students where students with excellent school qualifications will be awarded £1000/year if they were studying on an IET accredited course. This is a great idea to encourage the best students to study engineering and computing. The web page for this scheme (http://conferences.theiet.org/ambition/undergraduate/diamond-scholarships.cfm?origin=/diamond) sets out the conditions and the situation was clarified by an email from Theresa Miller, the IET Scholarships coordinator:

“The eligibility criteria for Diamond Scholarships is that the student must have achieved 3 Grade A passes at A level, therefore students studying at Scottish universities will not be eligible to apply.  Our aims are to attract the best students to IET accredited programmes by, in part, ensuring that the financial constraints placed on students by the new finance regime are eased.  Scottish students have the advantage of zero fees in Scotland. …”

In Scotland, we have a different educational system where local qualifications, equivalent to A-levels, are awarded. So, these bursaries are not available to students with Scottish qualifications, irrespective of how well they have done or where they are studying. A student from St Albans studying Computer Science at Cambridge can get £1000/year from the IET; a fellow student with comparable qualifications from St Andrews gets nothing. Scottish students (apart from those in some private schools) do not have an option to take A-levels so they have no choice in the matter here.

The email also makes clear that : “students studying at Scottish universities will not be eligible to apply” which seems to mean that not only are students with Scottish qualifications excluded, students with A-levels who chose to study in Scotland are also excluded. This mail attempts to justify the restriction on the grounds that Scottish students are not charged fees at Scottish universities (true) so it will help the financially disadvantaged who have to pay fees in England. The fact that a very high proportion of students who gain 3 ‘A’s at A-level are from private schools and so hardly from poor backgrounds is ignored.

This type of discrimination against both Scottish students and Scottish universities is completely unacceptable. We would rightly be outraged if the IET discriminated on the basis of gender, religion or ethnicity, yet they seem to think it is acceptable to discriminate on the basis of the country in the UK in which students live.

When a so-called professional institution deliberately makes decisions to exclude UK citizens on the basis of where they live, it reflects an unacceptable chauvinism on the part of its management and muddled thinking on how to encourage the best students to pursue careers in engineering.

I no longer wish to have anything to do with such a body. Shame on you.

Ian Sommerville FIET (till December 2012)

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