‘The university education of engineers is broken’: Go8 demands a renewed approach to address engineering skills shortage

Universities, government, and industry must work together if they are to address the domestic engineers shortage

The Group of Eight (Go8) universities released the first of their new policy papers addressing a lacuna in engineering education last week. A spokesperson for the Go8 indicated the “work behind the papers is aimed at ensuring Australia’s higher education sector is in a strong position to deliver what is required as the nation faces a series of significant workforce, economic and geopolitical challenges.”

The paper outlines three key failures of current policy and makes recommendations to train a domestic engineering workforce skilled enough to implement several federal government priorities. The spokesperson highlighted the growing need for engineers who have the skills to execute “nuclear submarine build[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 industry, university and government engineering council”.

In explaining the need for a revised approach, Go8 Chief Executive Vicki Thomson said “the Australian model for the university education of engineers is broken and maintaining the status quo is simply not an option.”

“Covid-19 has exposed our reliance on global talent and highlighted the need to strengthen our sovereign capacity to build a sustainable engineering workforce”, she said.

Go8 universities are responsible for educating 42% of Australia’s ‘Engineering and Related Technologies’ graduates. Nationally, 45% are domestic students. Among OECD countries, Australia ranks third lowest in its share of engineering graduates as a proportion of total graduates.

According to the report, Australia needs an additional 11,000 engineering enrolments per year over the next five years to meet the government’s projected requirements. This figure takes into consideration dropout rates, workforce retirements and other factors. In 2019, domestic ‘Engineering and Related Technologies’ graduates totalled 9,711. 

While skilled migration can address some of the shortfall, the need for engineers is not unique to Australia. The 2020 Global Engineering Capability Review highlighted the need for engineering talent globally, especially in low income and newly-industrialised countries investing significant sums in infrastructure. Accordingly, Australia has no option but to increase its domestic workforce if government requirements are to be met.

Ironically, the recent Job-ready Graduate Package (JRG) has undermined the capacity of universities to deliver an adequate education to their students. The JRG decreased engineering funding by over $4,500 per student (a 16% cut).

To deliver a quality education, the report highlighted the need for “leading edge equipment and infrastructure”. The recently constructed Engineering and Technology Precinct at the Darlington campus is one such space. However, SRC councillor and engineering student Riley Vaughan told Honi “that [the University of Sydney] ran out of money to furnish the brand new [building]”, leaving the top two levels completely empty.

It is worth noting the report neglected to mention recent trends in education delivery, Specifically, the tertiary sector’s increasing dependence on an underpaid and casualised workforce. USU Board Director and engineering student Cole Scott-Curwood points out, “this intrinsically affects the quality of engineering graduates because staff teaching conditions are student learning conditions.”

While universities are free to allocate a higher proportion of government funding to engineering places, this would come at the expense of other underfunded degree programmes. The report highlights that the losing courses in “ethics, philosophy, anthropology and other disciplines” to redirect funding to engineering degrees would “seriously undermine engineering education”.

In addition to decreased funding per student, the JRG erodes universities’ capacity to undertake high-quality research. If students are to be exposed to the cutting-edge developments that will become mainstays of their professional careers, then research funding is just as vital. 

The Go8’s recommendation is to increase total per student engineering funding to pre-JRG levels of $29,000 per year while maintaining student contributions at their current level. This would amount to a 29% increase over JRG arrangements, totalling $173.4 million per year (roughly 0.01% of GDP).

In addition, they recommend offering additional ‘National Priority Places’ to new students. According to the report, “National Priority Places for engineering would be funded at the

standard per student engineering rate”, with the number of places determined by the specific “ambition to expand the engineering pipeline.” To double the current number of places would cost $842 million per year (roughly 0.06% of GDP).

However, the nature of these places (such as which engineering stream) would be coordinated with industry requirements. At this stage it’s unclear what the breakdown would look like or whether additional places would be offered to address other systemic failings in the engineering profession, such as low participation amongst women and diverse genders, BIPOC representation, and engagement with families from low-SES backgrounds.