Group of Eight (Go8) universities released the first of their new guidance documents last week addressing a gap in engineering education. A Go8 spokesperson said “the work behind the documents aims to ensure Australia’s higher education sector is in a strong position to deliver what is needed as the nation faces a series of significant challenges. in labour, economics and geopolitics”.
The document outlines three major failures of current policy and makes recommendations for building a national engineering workforce skilled enough to implement several federal government priorities. The spokesman stressed the growing need for engineers who have the skills to execute “the construction of nuclear submarines[s]the Modern Manufacturing Strategy, the National Hydrogen Roadmap and the Australian Civil Space Strategy”.
Specifically, the report calls for “a new model for funding engineering education”, “national priority places for engineering” and “a national council of industry, universities and government”.
Explaining the need for a revised approach, Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson said “the Australian model of university education for engineers is broken and maintaining the status quo is simply not an option”.
“Covid-19 has exposed our reliance on global talent and underscored the need to build our sovereign capacity to build a sustainable engineering workforce,” she said.
Go8 universities are responsible for educating 42% of Australian graduates in ‘engineering and related technologies’. Nationally, 45% are domestic students. Among OECD countries, Australia ranks third in its share of engineering graduates relative to the total number of graduates.
According to the report, Australia needs an additional 11,000 engineering enrollments per year over the next five years to meet planned government requirements. This figure takes into account dropout rates, retirements and other factors. In 2019, national graduates in “engineering and related technologies” numbered 9,711.
While skilled migration may fill some of the gap, the need for engineers is not unique to Australia. The 2020 Global Engineering Capabilities Review highlighted the need for engineering talent globally, especially in low-income and newly industrializing countries investing heavily in infrastructure. As a result, Australia has no choice but to increase its domestic workforce if government demands are to be met.
Ironically, the recent Job-ready Graduate Package (JRG) has undermined the ability of universities to provide adequate education to their students. The JRG cut engineering funding by more than $4,500 per student (a 16% cut).
To provide quality education, the report highlighted the need for “state-of-the-art equipment and infrastructure”. The recently built Engineering and Technology Enclosure on the Darlington campus is one such space. However, SRC adviser and engineering student Riley Vaughan said Honi “this [the University of Sydney] ran out of money to furnish the brand new [building]”, leaving the upper two levels completely empty.
It should be noted that the report failed to mention recent trends in education provision, in particular the growing reliance of the tertiary sector on an underpaid and precarious workforce. Cole Scott-Curwood, USU board director and engineering student, points out that “it inherently affects the quality of engineering graduates, because the teaching conditions for staff are the learning conditions for students” .
While universities are free to allocate a greater proportion of public funding to engineering places, this would come at the expense of other underfunded degree programs. The report points out that the loss of courses in “ethics, philosophy, anthropology and other disciplines” to redirect funding towards engineering degrees “would seriously undermine the education of engineers”.
In addition to decreasing funding per student, the JRG erodes the ability of universities to undertake high quality research. If students are to be exposed to cutting-edge developments that will become mainstays of their professional careers, research funding is equally vital.
The Go8 recommendation is to increase total funding per engineering student to pre-JRG levels by $29,000 per year while maintaining student contributions at their current level. This would equate to a 29% increase over the JRG agreements, totaling $173.4 million per year (about 0.01% of GDP).
In addition, they recommend offering additional “national priority places” to new students. According to the report, “national priority locations for engineering would be funded at
standard rate per engineering student”, with the number of places determined by “the specific ambition to expand the engineering pipeline”. Doubling the current number of places would cost $842 million per year (about 0.06% of GDP).
However, the nature of these locations (such as the engineering track) would be coordinated with industry requirements. At this stage, it is unclear what the distribution would look like or if additional places would be offered to address other systemic failures of the engineering profession, such as low participation of women and diverse genders, representation of BIPOC and engagement with families from low SES backgrounds. .