World Class Engineering

Melbourne School of Engineering

A century and a half from now, who knows what engineers will be working on? It is challenging enough for many to simply absorb what is being done in the present, so fast is the discipline changing and redefining itself. Professor Iven Mareels is Dean of the School of Engineering and he points out that engineers now work with the very biggest as well as the very smallest things – from space stations and skyscrapers to physical actuators smaller than the eye can see – and the barriers between the different divisions of engineering are breaking down rapidly.

At the small end of the scale, today’s engineers are working on everything from material science to biology, and are involved in all manner of medical projects such as bionic eyes and artificial skin; clinical engineers, rather than doctors, are also looking into more targeted drug delivery for cancer treatment. On the other end of the size spectrum, ecology and sustainability are of primary importance to the engineering world, with experts increasingly looking to engineering-based answers to the survival of the planet and urban infrastructures.

All of which may come as less than welcome news to many corporations employing engineers, suffering the well-known shortfall in supply of graduates and bemoaning the fact – as some companies tell us – that universities are no longer turning out the “right kind of engineer.” But with the unprecedented diversity in the types of engineering, defining a “right kind” is not realistic. Iven says they must adapt to the changing times.

In 1861 there was only one ‘engineering’ – no ‘electrical’, ‘mining’ or ‘mechanical’ in front of it. However, as the engineer’s body of knowledge and skills grew, there quickly became a demand for specialisation – partly to reduce the cost and time involved in training graduates. But Iven recognises the risks inherent in students becoming too specialised, and sees a better way forward: to expose the students to a broader variety of engineering disciplines before defining a specific focus. “Now we are going back to our roots,” he explains. “Problems do not present themselves as ‘mechanical’ or ‘mining’ but as ‘engineering’ problems.” He sees the benefit in instead teaching “a method of approaching a problem, a way of thinking.

“Many industries want highly specialised engineers (e.g. a ‘building services engineer’) – we don’t do that,” he explains. “Industry has to be realistic. We can deliver them a person that can strategically think, has the capability to develop in any one specific area of engineering you like, and will do that for the next 35 years.” There is no crystal ball, he says. “I don’t know what engineers will be thinking about in 35 years’ time. But the fundamentals we teach have been based on 19th century good science. That knowledge has not changed. If you understand those fundamentals, what you can build on that is limited only by the imagination and by technology – computing power, for example – which will shift over time. How will it change? I cannot predict.” But given a solid grasp of the fundamentals, a capacity for lateral thinking and access to information, graduates can “do anything if they put it into context. If I train them like that, industry should be able to use them to advantage to create the future.”

In any case, says Iven, “we must never forget that as educators, our main contribution to society is the formation of the minds that will serve our society and govern our future; it is a daunting responsibility that we have been entrusted us with, and which we take seriously indeed.”

Iven agrees that the dialogue between academic institutions and employers is far better than it used to be, and his school puts great effort into changing and innovating to provide the education it predicts will be of most use to everyone. The Melbourne Accelerator Program in particular has “significant buy-in from the innovation / entrepreneur and alumni community,” and is intended to support the development of new ventures that tackle meaningful problems with scalable solutions by the students, staff and alumni of the School. Two such ‘joint ventures’ were chosen in November as the inaugural recipients of $700,000 in funding through the Optus-Innov8 seed funding program for start-ups. Meanwhile, Master of Engineering students “get options in entrepreneurship and management at a level rarely seen in a university engineering degree.” This qualification is dually accredited by Engineers Australia* and Europe’s ACE, “enabling graduates to work in the largest engineering markets in the world as professional engineers.”

The energy market is a current (forgive the pun) case in point; working with interested companies, the school developed a Master of Energy Systems course open to students with a good background in accounting or economics, as well as those with a true ‘engineering’ background, putting them all together so they can work out not only what is wanted as an energy outcome but what is feasible in terms of finance, social acceptance, and so forth. “We train people to think across those boundaries. This is beyond engineering, involving social sciences as well as finance – because in the end someone will have to pay for it. This is what engineering always has been, I believe.”

The school has some 300 direct academic staff and maintains strong links with other research establishments such as NICTA (formerly National ICT Australia), the Bionics Institute and a number of clinical research bodies around Melbourne, which has become something of a hub for this branch. Half the intake of students is from abroad; certainly this is attractive from a revenue standpoint but more important to Iven is the cross-cultural dimension it brings to creative thinking. He expresses some regret at how education comes to be an ‘export industry’ rather than a question of building a society. “But this is where engineers can play an important role,” he asserts. Building a sustainable world for the huge increase in population of the future requires many well-trained people who understand not only energy but also its limitations and are able to communicate those limitations. “I feel for the engineers of the future – they will have to be much better equipped as communicators than ever before.”

The school is not exactly destitute and Iven accepts that there is no such thing as ‘sufficient’ funding, but he has a warning: “The industry-university connection in Australia is very poor compared to many other places, especially northern Europe, China or Japan. Industry locally does not see university as enough of an opportunity to innovate and that is a lost opportunity. Our competitiveness will be eroded.” He believes Australians are in some ways complacent; still the ‘lucky country’ with endless resources and fantastic primary industries which are in fact a small and shrinking part of our economy – 70 per cent of the economy is in services. “We have to start servicing that with innovation and that is where engineering has to play a significant role. We are not doing that in this country.” Other countries are doing it and, “we are going to lose out,” Iven warns.

Australia’s entire reputation for skills and added value is in fact in danger, he says. “Industry can source engineers from anywhere in the world and they will pick the person who best fits their team. If you are not a part of that international competition you don’t even get a seat at the table. I am afraid we [Australia] are losing our right to be at the table.” Industry has to “tell us where you need the innovation and how we can help you and where you can help us. It has to be a two-way street.”

While industry must grasp the seriousness of this issue, says Iven, so must government. Initiatives such as CRCs and grants “have not really delivered a structure of good collaboration between industry and universities. We cannot rely on the fact that international students come here because there is in any case a decline in their numbers as other countries become more interesting due to their higher education systems. As they rise in the rankings they will get more of the students. Unless there is an education relevant for that market,” a downward spiral develops of fewer incoming students, so less revenue, so fewer facilities, so fewer incoming students – and so on. Iven believes Australian higher-education establishments are effectively all the same with “none of the diversity of the system of the US, Europe or even China. Universities are stratified [there] and they should be here and we have not done it here – that is a message our government does not want to hear.”

As for the local talent, he warns the shortfall in supply stands at 65,000 and is unlikely to be addressed because the supply line is not as good as it was, with young people not receiving sufficient appropriate education in the system. It’s not that engineering is not popular among students as a career choice. But rather, “we are selecting from a smaller cohort of students than I would like because the standard of education is not as broad-based as it used to be.”

There is the prospect of an increasing blurring of the distinction between local and foreign anyway, says Iven, with the spread of more distance learning in high education, although he feels there is always a place for face-to-face education too. He is particularly proud of work being done at the school in nano-medicine and biomedical engineering (the school’s standards of which he is particularly proud and in which every aspect of engineering is at work) as well as energy (including ecological engineering and climate change mitigation). As to what future students might study though, if he had to pick one area not yet being investigated thoroughly, it might be “resource economics. It’s remarkably under-explored. How do you actually value sustainability as a bottom line?” Iven is excited by the interaction of market forces and technological forces. “If I had a few million dollars, I would like to hire some really good people to put in that space.”

*Full accreditation with Engineers Australia to be achieved shortly with the first graduating class.

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