Why is Engineering Education So Damn Expensive?

Whether partly (or fully) state-sponsored, as is usually the case in Europe, or paid out of students' own pockets, as is generally the case across over the pond, there's a question about engineering education that keeps popping up. "Why is it so damn expensive?"

This is often the supposedly elegant and constructive way of saying that it's too expensive. Attempting to answer that quickly devolves into a boring bean-counting exercise, often filled with derogatory comments about liberal arts and philosophy programs. You've heard those and I'm not going to bore you with another one. Instead, let me tell you a fun and illustrative story about why it's so expensive.

Back in my second year of university, I took the hardest course there was: Materials for Electrical Engineering. This boring, unassuming name hid a curricula that included quantum mechanics, solid-state physics, and basic insulation engineering, all squeezed into one semester of grueling hard work. After a three-hour lecture -- and there were 14 of those in the entire semester -- I'd have anywhere between 30 and 50 pages of notes, hastily scribbled as I was trying to keep up with our severe, pedantic professor. And we also had labs. And seminars, And homework. On average, about half of the people who took that course failed the exam the first time.

I remember most of the labs, but one of them definitely sticks out, because that lab consisted entirely of blowing things up.

Our group (4 or 5 students, I think?) would go into a large room, most of which was occupied by a huge metal cage. We'd sit huddled in a corner, while the lab instructor would go into the cage and carefully place a sheet of insulating material between two electrodes that were a good half a meter or so apart. He'd get out of the cage, lock it up, tell us 2-3 times to stay away from the cage and to watch carefully. And then proceed to increase the voltage between the two electrodes until an electric arc went right through the sample (or -- depending on the material -- snaked around it).

He'd then go back into the cage, get the sample out, and proceed to examine it with us (sometimes he had to put out the fire first, of course). It wasn't just the burn marks that we had to examine. We also had to smell the smoke and the gas emissions -- sometimes the arcs happen out of sight and in noisy environments, but you still recognize them because of the pungent smell of ozone and burnt insulation material.

Some of the procedures were repeated with slight variations. For example, on our first attempt, we'd slowly ramp the voltage up to 60 KV or whatever, until the damn thing arced. Then on our second attempt we'd push the dial straight to 80 KV, push the big button, and watch the arc blow right through the poor piece of plastic.

And that would be repeated every week of the semester, with another group of twenty year-olds. Every week, a bunch people would spend an hour doing nothing but subjecting two dozen sheets of various insulating materials to 20-100 KV arcs.

This lab wasn't relevant just because it taught you the basics of testing insulation materials, evaluating insulation damage and so on. It was also relevant because it prepared you for a similar lab, which was usually done during the third year, where you'd do exactly the same thing but with medium-voltage switch gear. Every week, 4-5 people would literally blow up a medium-voltage contactor, then recover the burnt pieces from all over the room and examine them.

All of this wasn't some extravaganza for easily-impressed twenty year-olds. The point was to teach you how test the insulating and safety qualities of various materials, and how to recognize the effects of insulation breakdown. It's not just the dielectric strength (how well the insulator, well, insulates) that's relevant, but also how the material acts when it breaks down. Some materials quickly catch fire, for example, especially if they're dry. You can't teach these things by having people look at pictures, or Youtube videos of other people doing it.

Needless to say, these things cost a lot. First, there was the maintenance of all this machinery. Then there was the cost of electricity -- unsurprisingly, firing up 100 KV arcs that burn right through a sheet of plastic requires way more energy than heating up a microwave dinner. And, of course, there was the cost of all the things that you had to blow up.

And -- here's the interesting bit -- year over year, this was an expensive lab, but not the most expensive one. I never saw the figures but I bet it was above average, but not by much. That's because, while all that energy and material cost money, the machinery wasn't that pretentious, so it didn't have to be replaced too often, and didn't require expensive maintenance. The associated lab equipment is now about 30 years old, and I hear it's still running fine. Cables and various bits and pieces were replaced over the years but the expensive parts, like the transformers, are sturdy pieces of hardware that can last practically forever under these conditions.

So the next time you're wondering why a philosophy program is so much cheaper, well, that's why. There's not much book burning going on in those.