The third revolution in engineering education

Unprecedented diversity and scale, together with information and communications technology, are triggering a revolution in engineering education, and universities are seizing on the opportunity to train a new generation of creative, flexible and entrepreneurial engineers says Professor Mark Hoffman, Dean of UNSW Engineering.

Professor Mark Hoffman, Dean of Engineering.Professor Mark Hoffman's address at the Engineers Australia Fellows lunch on 31 March 2017

Thank you to Engineers Australia for the opportunity to speak today and also thank you to Dr Mehreen Faruqui, Member of the Legislative Council of NSW and UNSW alumnus, for hosting us in parliament house today.

Congratulations to all the new EA Fellows. It’s a great recognition of your standing in our engineering community; and also brings with it an obligation to take leadership and be role models.

The best universities, including those in Australia, sit at the heart of a sophisticated global knowledge system shaping our future. The ultimate goal of a university is to create future social and economic impact through the best quality education and research. And the engineering discipline in Australian universities sits at the core of this goal.

Today I’m going to talk about the education mission of a university. You may ask WHY the Dean of Australia’s largest research intensive engineering Faculty, who usually talks about magnificent research achievements in areas such as photovoltaics and quantum computing, will talk about education?

Firstly, I believe that it is the role of a modern Australian research-intensive university to focus equally on research and education.

The second reason lies in our goal to create future social and economic impact. The reality is that no matter how amazing our research achievements may be, it will be extremely difficult to surpass the impact of the achievements of the vast numbers of graduates, people such as those in the room today.

Thirdly, our research achievements will have their greatest impact when they are implemented by graduates in the workforce who were educated in the culture which created those research outcomes, and better still if they were a part of that research while students.

And WHY is engineering education so important?

It’s not discussed often among ourselves, but it’s worth remembering: the creation of new technologies and applications relies on engineers.

Improvements in our standard of living, and the betterment of society, would be impossible without engineers.

Whether it’s exploiting a mining boom or creating a Knowledge Nation, we’re there.

Engineers are the foundation of any effort to ensure that Australia is a prosperous nation with high economic growth – now and into the future.

Especially in a highly competitive landscape, globally and in our region, where everyone is aiming to be faster, smarter, and more efficient.

But what does it take to create an engineer today?

Unlike many other professions, the starting point is remarkably similar around the world: namely, a period of university study of between three and five years.

In part, this is driven by the global recognition of tertiary qualifications via the Washington Accord, a multi-lateral agreement which itself is quite unique.

Today’s education of engineers is different to what many of us will recall: we had smaller classes and smaller labs – and most of us looked the same. In my mechanical engineering class at the University of Sydney, we had 36 students – now, there’s over 200.

But it’s not just the numbers: over the past few decades, there’ve been dramatic changes in industry in Australia and globally and, similarly, in tertiary education systems. Hence, in the preparation of graduates for the profession.

Today, I’m going to highlight those changes, and the future goals of universities to deal with them – it’s a university’s role to prepare people and technologies for the future.

Take, for example, the way that research and development now happens in industry.

By and large, the old model – in which technology is developed by large companies with R&D budgets – has become a rarity.

Rather, small companies with clever ideas are born, which are flexible and high risk, attract investors, develop their innovative processes or technologies, and are eventually acquired by larger companies.

On top of that, globalisation means that engineering is no longer localised.

The majority of successful companies in Australia – and internationally – sell both products and services around the world. Similarly, overseas companies are major employers here in Australia.

So there’s now a brisk movement of engineers to wherever the most interesting or rewarding work is being done, facilitated in large part by the fact that qualifications are internationally recognised.

And the demand for these skills is rising fast.

Consequently, just about every country is experiencing a shortage of engineering skills of some form or another.

just about every country is experiencing a shortage of engineering skills of some form or another

Professor Mark Hoffman

And we’ve seen this most acutely in Australia.

And it’s not a blip: it’s a long term problem.

Even when the demand seems flat, it only takes a small increase in economic growth to create desperate shortages. 

Wealthy developed countries like Australia have addressed this in two ways – education and immigration: train more engineers, or import them from other education systems.

In Australia, we’ve seen dramatic increases in education: 25 years ago, there were 43,600 students studying engineering at local universities, of whom 12% were female and 9% were international students.

By 2015, the engineering student population had grown 230% to 100,000; of whom 17% were female and 36% were international students.

At UNSW, we currently have 14,000 engineering students, and our graduates account for nearly 15% of all engineers coming out of Australian universities. Anecdotally, we estimate that 30% of graduates move overseas within a year of graduation; half international students, half local.

Universities in the Sydney basin as a whole educated 32,000 –  over one third – of Australia’s engineers in 2014.

Our major universities are large by UK standards, where the largest engineering programs have in the order of 5,000 students; but we are small by Asian standards, and that’s where the future competition lies.

This may sound impressive, but it’s not enough: over the past decade, Australian graduates have represented less than half the total number of engineering jobs that need to be filled annually … some 15,000 to 18,000 a year.

Skilled immigration provides much to Australia, but I believe that depending upon it for half our engineering workforce is not ideal.

Some 36% of students in our university engineering programs are international; this may seem large, but it’s less than the fraction entering the workforce through immigration who were educated elsewhere.

Even by 2016, 92.3% of Australian engineering graduates are employed in the medium term, one of the highest percentages of all professions in the Graduate Outcomes longitudinal survey.

Even now, when there is supposedly no shortage in the professional engineering workforce, 85% of students who graduated in 2015 from the three big engineering programs in New South Wales – UTS, Sydney and UNSW – had jobs within four months. 10% do further study.

There is no doubt that Australian universities need to scale up their engineering education.

The other big transition is that computers and IT have changed not just what engineers do, and how they do it, but how they need to learn today. A whole new type of engineer is in demand by industry. And IT is itself an engineering field.

A whole new type of engineer is in demand by industry. And IT is itself an engineering field.

Professor Mark Hoffman

Engineers today are expected to be able to work anywhere in Australia, or even overseas; be more flexible in how they work; and be able to apply their skills in a variety of different industries and applications.

Furthermore, the length of time engineers hold jobs and maintain specialisations has fallen.

In fact, Engineers Australia’s own analysis bears this out: showing that the employability of engineers is very good at the early to mid-stages of a career – but that, for more senior engineers, it can be a struggle to hold down a position, or even stay in the profession.

Taking in to account these dynamic changes in industry and society, engineering education has had to change, and look forward to even more changes. And I’d like to discuss these now.

To preface this story, I need to point out that it is, overall, a good one.

Australia is in the impressive position of having six universities in the world’s top 100 by international rankings.

Universitas 21, – an international network of leading universities – in 2015 ranked the Australian university system 10th in the world. Interestingly, we ranked 7th on performance (that’s research, graduate employability and student participation), but only 18th in terms of the resources the sector receives.

To understand recent changes, it is helpful to contextualise them in the history of engineering education: in the first half of the 20th century, engineering education was very focused on the development of skills via technical and trades colleges.

After the Second World War, two things happened.

First, there was an inexorable increase in the number of people studying engineering; and second, there was a big transition to effectively providing engineers primarily with knowledge – learning theorems, facts and formulae, which were then assessed in formal exams.

This is the kind of education, with a focus on engineering science, which many of us in this room probably experienced.

The big advantage of this knowledge-driven ‘engineering science’ approach is that it can be taught using traditional methods of lectures and tutorials, and scales up easily with available infrastructure.

However, this kind of knowledge in today’s information age can be much more easily obtained by other means, online and elsewhere.

Consider MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses; when they first appeared five years ago, they were trumpeted as the death knell for universities.

MOOCs are effectively an online education experience, often involving video and course materials, where students can very effectively learn simple facts and formulae.

Those of you who’ve done home repairs using You Tube, or watched their children do Mathletics, will know exactly what I mean.

And MOOCs are really effective: it’s a case of technology becoming a much better delivery vector for the information component of instruction, and providing an important starting point for the changing nature of engineering education.

Why have a lecture, where an academic presents slide after slide over 1-2 hours in front of 400 to 500 students, when those same students could get a much better experience online?

Maybe even with the ability to ask questions, and pursue additional research, all in their own time?

These methods are infinitely scalable. And the need for an old-style lecture is effectively removed.

But MOOCs, as wonderful as they are, do not teach students how to work as teams; norhow to innovate to solve open-ended problems.

These very technologies, however, now provide an opportunity for universities to concentrate on other skills that create high quality engineers.

There’s now an intense focus on teaching engineering students not just knowledge and skills, but training them to develop enquiring mindsets and attitudes. And this is the third evolution of engineering education.

And it’s essential, because for engineers to function well in the flexible, dynamic workplace of today, they need to have attitudes and mindsets geared toward critical thinking – as well as an ability to use what knowledge they gain – rather than just have that knowledge on its own.

What modern university education strives for today is for students to know what questions to ask, and then how to search for the answers, evaluate them and apply them – rather than to just have ready answers to those questions provided.

If the simpler components of education – information and knowledge transfer – can be done by MOOCs, which are infinitely scalable, then universities have a remarkable opportunity to provide much more quality education to very large numbers of students.

Student-led groups are another way to learn about innovation. Let me explain.

UNSW has groups of 30 to 50 students who get together to undertake projects. They are cross-disciplinary and also attract students from other disciplines.

I am talking about groups such as Sunswift (which builds solar-powered cars that can go at 130 km/h), or BLUEsat (which launches micro-satellites on balloons 35 km into space), or Engineering World Health (where 28 UNSW engineering students spend 3 weeks last January in Cambodia and repaired over 150 pieces of medical equipment).

There’s no doubt in my mind that these endeavours provide an outstanding engineering education, and students learn innovation in a way like no other.

Another way we’re encouraging innovation skills is by moving our infrastructure from formal teaching labs into ‘maker spaces’ – places where students can gather to create, invent, tinker, explore and discover, using a variety of tools and materials.

These are replacing formal teaching labs and focussing the students on creating solutions to open ended challenges.

Alumna Monique Alfris cofounded Pollinate Energy which provides access to affordable clean energy technologies to people living in tent cities in India. The other issue, of course, is that engineers today need to be much more entrepreneurial, as a large portion of the workforce is now creating new ideas for social and economic impact rather than working for the large corporations and spending their careers in one company or in some particular specialty. And business needs are changing too.

To be entrepreneurial, students need a diversity of thought to be able to understand, not just the technical aspects of being an engineer, but also markets, society, business, et cetera.

Students see this; 43% of current UNSW engineering students have chosen to undertake a combined degree: engineering with law, engineering with commerce, engineering with music, or science, or architecture.

There are entrepreneurial engineers. From UNSW alone, Zhengrong Shi became the world’s first solar billionaire by founding a photovoltaic business in China; Peter Farrell created medical technology manufacturer ResMed; and Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar founded the software giant Atlassian.

At UNSW we have about 50 engineering student start-ups operating, but this is only a fraction of students.

Models exist to teach students entrepreneurial skills, but these are mostly at small, elite colleges, and are hard to scale to larger numbers of students. Addressing this at scale is a major challenge for us in the years ahead.

Another tack, of course, to diversify educational experiences is to provide industry training, partnering with corporations who also benefit from the development of skills and the problem solving students show while in their midst, thereby delivering benefits to all participants.

This used to work very well when larger corporations had the room to take cadets, or even offered cadetships.

My own education was enriched through a cadetship with the NSW Electricity Commission, and working in the Nucleus group of biomedical device companies, and by helping setting up a biomechanics laboratory at Royal North Shore Hospital.

Many of you will have similar recollections of formative career experiences while still a student. But these opportunities are now much rarer.

Universities do have industry programs. Most engineering students in the Sydney Basin are required to undertake a 10-week industrial placement before graduating, and they do.

Despite the importance of these industry programs, it can be difficult for universities to broker arrangements for the placement of students.

Which may be why, in Victoria, this requirement has been somewhat watered down, and students offered alternative pathways.

It’s interesting to note that while 85% of the 2015 engineering graduates from the three major NSW universities had jobs within four months of completing their studies, this is in the order of 75% for the three major Victorian universities. Many factors may be involved, but it’s an interesting correlation.

Industry placements can also be a challenge because they involve large numbers of students. For example, UNSW students seek in the order of 2,000 engineer internships a year.

Of note is that 30% of students are now doing their industrial traineeships offshore, due to the fact that they always seem to occur between December and February.

At UNSW, we plan to introduce a three-term year in 2019.

A welcome feature of this will be that students will be able to take a semester off at any time during the year to do industrial training – effectively spreading the number of students seeking training across the whole year, and hopefully fitting better into the periods when companies can absorb them.

And we’ve launched a number of education partnerships between UNSW and companies, creating MOOCs, like the SEC.EDU agreement with the Commonwealth Bank for a course in cybersecurity.

Credit can be obtained for the first few of those courses, which then can be used towards a full Masters.

It is important to contextualise this within the university funding environment.

Currently, a university receives around $26,000 pa to educate an Australian engineering student, and this has been essentially constant in real terms for 20 years.

What has changed is that the student’s contribution has risen from zero to 1/3, and the government contribution has fallen correspondingly.

Conversely, in parallel with this, there has been a significant increase in the number of international students who, by and large, did not exist in the university system 30 years ago.

These students, by comparison, pay in excess of $40,000 pa to study at Australia’s top engineering universities.

It could be argued that these international students are subsidising the education of Australian students in some universities.

At UNSW, the revenue from international engineering undergraduate students is close to that from local students, although they represent only 30% of the cohort, and that’s well below the national average.

But the real chronic underfunding problem faced by Australian universities is for research, where a Commonwealth research grant is now only half the full cost to actually undertake research.

The result is that major research universities need to fund research from education revenues.

This seems, to many of us, not only morally dubious but also extremely problematic as a way to fund research, especially when every economist and statistician, and every government report, identifies that the way to supercharge innovation and grow a modern economy is through R&D.

So, what is the vision for the future of engineering education in universities?

Consistent with the international need to grow engineering education, I have been involved with planning two new engineering programs, one in the UK, another in Uganda, from a greenfield site.

Despite the vastly different environments, both groups have come to remarkably similar conclusions as to what they wish to see in their future graduates. And we articulate this as follows.

We seek to develop entrepreneurial engineers, who will be strong team players and able to serve their society by contextualising engineering within social, economic and cultural settings. They should be predisposed to seek out problems, create solutions and deliver value.

It was put to me recently that engineers charge ahead developing technologies with vast impacts on society, and then it is left to social scientists to pick up the pieces and try to explain how those technologies will impact, and are impacting, society. This may be extreme, but causes one to pause and think.

An ideal ambition of engineering education is that engineers can themselves foresee the societal issues they might create with their technologies.

The other part, of course, is that we need much more diversity.

There is no doubt that cultural diversity is quite strong within the Australian university system, and in large parts of our workforce.

However, gender diversity is not at all good in engineering.

Among the major developed countries, the only nation with worse gender diversity than Australia among its engineering cohort is the UK. Leading Iranian universities have a higher proportion of women studying engineering than Australia.

Then there is, as I am sure you know, a far greater dropout from the profession of female engineering graduates than there is of male graduates.

This is not the same in other professions, and while it might once have been, it has changed over the years.

So this needs to be addressed, and there are sustained efforts by universities, industry and Engineers Australia to do so, not least at UNSW, where we have a target of 30% females among engineering students and staff by 2020.

And while universities have been slow to create multinational partnerships with each other and with industry, this is starting to happen.

The National University of Singapore and MIT have had a very successful partnership in place for at least 15 years.

Like industry, the driver has been to increase impact by combining capabilities through large scale institutional partnership; my own university UNSW has recently joined with Arizona State University and Kings College London to form the PLuS Alliance with just this goal.

So, in summary: Australian universities need to support the creation of a larger Australian educated engineering workforce, while delivering quality graduates who know what questions to ask, are flexible in how they apply their knowledge across boundaries and can communicate clearly – and whose diverse makeup reflects the society they seek to serve.

In delivering on these ambitions, we need to also boost the number of Australian engineers educated in Australia, or educate foreign students who can then enter the Australian workforce with a local education.

This would help reduce our level of skilled immigration, though would not ever abolish it, nor should it.

We need our graduates to be globally-focussed, innovative and entrepreneurial, creative and graduate prepared to enter the workplace.

Universities need to work closer with industry, bring them into the equation as a partner in the education process; this has clearly been beneficial to those companies with whom universities partner, but can be hard to convey to companies with no experience in this area.

Working with industry, though, should not just be about universities brokering student training, but also being better attuned to their needs in both training and research. It will ensure graduates are prepared for the workplace.

We need to achieve all these goals via high quality online learning; better technology; overseas exchanges; face-to-face and group work that teaches students how to ask questions; and develop thinking skills via maker spaces, design workshops and student-run innovation groups.

The outlook for Australia is optimistic.

Australian universities are very well placed to produce world leading engineers and innovators at scale; we have world leading experience providing education to diverse groups, and this diversity is a real strength of our education system.

But ultimately, we need an ecosystem.

The best engineering education will be delivered in partnership with society, industry, employers and government.

And when we get that right, Australia will be one of the world’s most sustainable, high growth, vibrant and satisfied societies. 

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