Funding reforms ‘another blow’ to engineering education

Canberra’s policy changes helped turn its big-ticket infrastructure schemes into pipe dreams, university-industry report argues

March 28, 2022
Female engineer
Source: iStock

Last year’s Job-ready Graduates (JRG) reforms exacerbated pre-existing problems with Australian engineering education so severely that the government’s signature infrastructure projects may never see the light of day, a report warns.

The Group of Eight (Go8) research-intensive universities says the government will need to spend A$1.25 billion (£715 million) a year to fix funding anomalies and double the supply of homegrown engineers.

Otherwise, nation-building projects including a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, a new hydrogen industry, a rebooted civil space industry and a strategy to scale up manufacturing will never come to fruition.

“The success of the government’s agenda…is absolutely dependent upon increasing our domestic engineering workforce,” said Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson. “Put starkly, unless this happens, none of those projects and policies can or will eventuate.

“The Australian model for the university education of engineers is broken, and maintaining the status quo is simply not an option. There is absolutely no doubt that the government’s JRG package, which cut funding by 16 per cent, has been a deterrent to increasing the supply of engineers – and that has not gone unnoticed by industry.”

Emilio Romeo, chief executive of Ericsson Australia and New Zealand, said the problems predated the Covid-19 pandemic. “Skill shortages have always been a pressing matter and something which needs to be addressed urgently,” he said.

In a policy paper crafted with input from corporate leaders and lobbyists, the Go8 says Australia will need to double its domestic production of engineers. “The engineering workforce is so overworked and time-poor that innovation is becoming an out-of-reach luxury,” it says.

The paper advocates a 29 per cent increase in per-student funding for engineering. This would overcome the JRG’s “conflicting incentives”, whereby students are supposedly encouraged to study engineering by lower tuition fees but universities are discouraged from teaching the discipline because the increase in subsidies has not offset the fee reduction.

The paper also recommends a 10 per cent “research premium” at a cost of more than A$100 million. It says JRG “explicitly” severed the funding link between teaching of domestic students and research activity, two “defining requirements” of Australian universities.

“This issue is particularly acute for engineering as it is a specific requirement of accreditation for an engineering course that students complete a substantial research project,” the paper says.

It also advocates a A$125 million “Engineering Investment Fund” to bankroll education and research equipment such as wind tunnels, robotics and automation platforms and facilities for testing and characterising materials, developing power grids and fabricating micro devices.

“Since the repurposing of the Education Investment Fund there has been no ongoing government funding for educational institutional infrastructure of this type,” the paper explains.

It also recommends additional “priority places” for engineering modelled on an extra 12,000 university places funded by the government as part of the JRG.

The number of places “would depend on the ambition to expand the engineering pipeline”. Targets could be set by a new National Industry, University and Government Engineering Council, which would also monitor engineering workforce trends and advise on industry involvement in engineering degrees.

The proposals stem from an industry summit on 2 December last year. It brought together more than 60 delegates including 10 company chiefs, five vice-chancellors and 10 heads of industry and educational representative bodies.

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