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Engineering education in the Australian context.

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Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 368–373
Published online 1 October 2007 in Wiley InterScience
( DOI:10.1002/apj.067
Research Article
Engineering education in the Australian context
A. B. Bradley* and R. M. Allen
Australian Engineering Accreditation Centre, Engineers Australia, 21 Bedford Street, North Melbourne, Victoria 3051, Australia
Received 27 February 2007; Revised 28 February 2007; Accepted 28 February 2007
ABSTRACT: This paper provides a background to the Higher Education System in Australia and in particular to the
provision of undergraduate professional engineering degree programmes, often from the perspective of an accrediting
body. The current issues impacting on the operating environment, as well as educational design and quality assurance
approaches are discussed. Some of the key features and emerging innovations within the Australian engineering
education system are reviewed.  2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
KEYWORDS: engineering education; undergraduate education
The Australian Qualification Framework (AQF) defines
post-secondary education in Australia at a national
level, with 13 discrete qualification levels, following
a secondary (high school) study programme (AQF,
Certificate and diploma-level training programmes
are managed by the vocational education and training
sector within the Australian education system. Providers
include public colleges, technical institutes or private
bodies, set up as Registered Training Organisations
(RTOs). The Federal Ministry of Education, Science and
Technology (DEST), through a series of national industry skills councils, develops and reviews competencybased national training packages for endorsement by
the National Training Quality Council. These packages
define targeted competencies and assessment guidelines as well as qualification packaging, and provide
a framework for RTOs to develop training programme
implementations. State or territory registering/course
accrediting bodies have the responsibility for registration of RTOs, and assuring the quality of delivery in
accordance with the Australian quality training framework.
Undergraduate qualifications beyond the certificate
and diploma levels generally comprise 3- and 4-year
bachelor degrees, followed by post-graduate certificates,
diplomas, masters and doctoral degrees. Degree-level
qualifications have traditionally been managed by the
higher education sector, again falling under DEST.
*Correspondence to: A. B. Bradley, Australian Engineering Accreditation Centre, Engineers Australia, 21 Bedford Street, North
Melbourne, Victoria 3051, Australia.
 2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Providers in the higher education sector have historically been the Australian public sector universities.
There is an emerging presence, however, of alternative
providers at the degree level.
There are currently some 37 public universities and
1 private university in Australia, and a total of 47 educational institutions (including the above universities),
which have been granted self-accrediting status for the
development and delivery of degree programmes.
Bachelor degree programmes aimed at the development of professional engineers within Australia are currently delivered by 34 of the public universities and 1
public college (which effectively is operating as a selfaccrediting university for the purposes of this discussion). No private institutions currently offer professional
engineering degrees.
Some of the major influences on the higher education
sector over the past two decades have been:
• A massification of university-level education, with
larger and larger proportions of high school leavers
participating in 3- and 4-year full-time degree programmes.
• The introduction of a Higher Education Contributions
Scheme (HECS), where students contribute substantially (to the order of 25%) to the costs of university
education through an interest-free loan scheme.
• The consolidation of tertiary entry rank systems
for assessing year-12 high school performance, and
ranking students for selection into their priority-listed
preferred programmes of study.
• A highly competitive marketplace where Australian
universities compete for high school graduates and
international fee-paying students, seeking their preference for programmes offered.
Asia-Pacific Journal of Chemical Engineering
• The introduction of an Australian fee-paying scheme,
whereby students who are unsuccessful in securing
an HECS-funded placement are able to join a study
programme by paying a fee more closely aligned with
the full cost of provision.
• Very rapid growth in the numbers of overseas students studying on campus at Australian universities
on a full-fee-paying basis. In this case, the fee level
is set at the full cost of provision of the study
programme. The proportion of international full-feepaying students today can be as high as 20–25% of
the total student load on some Australian university
• Many Australian universities over the past decade
have sought to internationalise their operations by
offering programmes offshore, either in partnership
with overseas educational organisations or through
the establishment of wholly owned branch campuses. In most cases, particular degree programmes
are implemented on both the Australian campus and
at offshore locations with identical educational outcomes claimed, and undifferentiated testamurs issued.
• During 1990–1992, a dramatic restructuring of
higher education resulted in a dismantling of the
earlier binary, university/polytechnic style system,
and in a number of complex institutional amalgamations. The end result was a unified university system,
with many of the newly defined institutions comprising multiple campuses, commonly spread over
considerable geographic distances. The same institutional structure remains today, although there has
been some consolidation of partnerships and some
rationalisation of campuses. Within the range of Australian universities today, there are three broad categories or groupings. The so-called group of eight
largely reflects the long-established ‘ivy-league’ universities, primarily located in each state capital city
and generally characterised by strong research performance. The ‘Australian Technology Network’ is a
grouping of a second tier of technology-focussed universities, most of which were previously identified
as ‘institutes of technology’. In this case, research
activities are again strong, but very much at an
applied level, and usually through key partnerships
with industry. A third grouping includes regional universities and other capital city universities with a
broader focus, often more directed at teaching and
learning. There are research activities, but often not
at the level of activity associated with the other
groupings. Undergraduate engineering education programmes are offered in all three of these university
• Over the past decade, there has been a broad
recognition of the need for sound quality systems
underpinning the function of university teaching.
Throughout all universities there has been a wider
 2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
understanding of the full scope of academic scholarship, embracing the Boyer categories (Boyer,
1990) of Discovery (Research), Integration (Synthesis), Application/Engagement (Practice) and Teaching (Learning). With this has come a strong drive for
quality in teaching and learning and a focus on the
delivery of a prescribed specification of graduate outcomes. Management of a formal quality improvement
cycle, including input and feedback from student and
external stakeholders is now an embedded part of the
teaching cycle for academic staff members, and along
with the delivery of research outcomes is part of the
key criteria for academic promotion.
• Over the past five years, the Australian University
Quality Agency (AUQA) has fulfilled a key audit
role, cyclically reviewing the performance of individual universities from the highest level, drilling down
to investigate the full depth of the quality systems
and providing detailed review reports, published in
the public domain.
• All public Australian universities have ‘self accreditation’ authority, which allows for the development,
introduction and maintenance of degree programmes
in their own right. Of course, these processes are
assessed by the above audit process to ensure that
programmes of study are based on sound rationale,
informed by external advice from industry and the
community, and are delivering outcomes that are
benchmarked to national and international standards.
In many fields such as engineering, the internal
accreditation processes are overlaid with an external
accreditation process, often managed by an appropriate professional body or agency, that monitors
standards and graduate outcomes in accordance with
national and international protocols.
• The public university dominance with sole rights to
offer bachelors and post-graduate degrees is currently
being challenged with the emergence of a more
diverse higher education environment. A significant
number of non-university public and private sector
providers are able to deliver and award degrees
on a non-self-accrediting basis. The concept and
definition of a ‘university’ are being questioned
with a potential de-coupling of the traditional links
between the rights of a ‘university’ title and degreegranting authority, self accreditation status and the
nexus between research and teaching.
Many influences are changing the characteristics of
engineering education and the operating environment in
Australian universities. These influences are principally
from external factors, but there are also impacts arising
Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 368–373
DOI: 10.1002/apj
from within individual universities. Some of the key
factors are listed below.
Changes within primary and secondary
education systems
Over the past decade and earlier, far-reaching changes
have occurred in primary and secondary education
within both the public and private school sectors.
Asia-Pacific Journal of Chemical Engineering
lower preference levels for entry to engineering degree
programmes. Male application rates typically exceed
female application rates on a 6 : 1 ratio.
Some universities have been tempted to relax input
level scores and pre-requisite study requirements in
order to maintain viable student numbers. As a result,
engineering educators are faced with a wider diversity of student capability and background, and transition
programmes have become important to build preparatory skills in mathematics and science.
At the primary level:
• Changing teacher profile, now largely female dominated and primarily educated for the purposes of a
teaching career. Typically, teachers have little industry background or experience. A background in science and mathematics is not common;
• Often very limited resources and facilities to support
science and technology-based learning activities;
• Very broad and flexible curriculum, with no guarantee
that any particular development pathway is covered;
• Students rarely exposed to external settings that
could convey the excitement and challenges of an
engineering career.
At secondary level:
• Few teachers have an industry background and, therefore, are able to provide a role model in engineering
and technology.
• Broad curriculum choices influence students away
from the science and mathematics streams as they
pursue ‘easier’ and sometimes more stimulating
• Tertiary entrance ranking systems place great emphasis on maximising year-12 scores in order to open
options for entry to highly contested university programmes such as medicine and law.
• Female student participation in the mathematics and
science streams is comparatively low.
• Diminishing interest in the mathematics and science
streams means that not all schools are able to offer the
full range of study units in these areas at the senior
Fewer qualified applicants for undergraduate
engineering education programmes
For year-12 high school students, a career in engineering does not convey the status or excitement of many
other offerings. Many students see the links between
mathematics and engineering, and conclude that engineering programmes at university level are very difficult.
Decreasing participation rates in mathematics and
science streams at senior levels in high school mean
 2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Diminishing funding levels
Government funding levels to universities have been
falling in a relative sense over two decades. At the
present time, engineering schools operate budgets comprising multiple funding streams. Commonly, less than
40% of the total income will be from government
funding for undergraduate teaching. This proportion
has been steadily dropping. The remaining income is
derived from commercial activities, fee-paying students,
research and limited philanthropy.
Adequate funding for facilities and equipment is often
difficult. In reality, research income often provides the
more significant items of new equipment. Undergraduate student access is negotiated and, therefore, engineering education programmes are subsidised in this
Ongoing maintenance and upgrades of practical learning facilities must be addressed within the overall university budget.
Market-driven environment
Many universities have been tempted to deviate from
the traditional streams of engineering to offer ‘boutique’
degrees in emerging and/or highly specialised technical fields. The motive here is to provide offerings that
will attract students for study in a highly competitive
marketplace. The result has been a proliferation of programme offerings, with some 290 four-year professional
engineering programmes and 60 three-year engineering
technologist programmes currently accredited by Engineers Australia. Examples of specialist offerings are
Robotics, Mechatronics, Telecommunications, Network
Engineering, Infrastructure Engineering and Renewable
Industry influences
Cyclic fluctuations in industry demand often mean that
graduate supply does not match or track the recruitment needs of the engineering industry. The threeAsia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 368–373
DOI: 10.1002/apj
Asia-Pacific Journal of Chemical Engineering
or four-year lead time for graduates is a factor, as
is general community awareness of current needs and
opportunities for graduate employment. For example, the current shortage of graduates for the mining, materials and resources industries is very serious.
Opportunities abound for graduates in the traditional
Mechanical and Civil Engineering fields. High school
leaver preferences for study in these engineering disciplines are still not reflecting the current levels of
employment opportunity. On the other hand, the IT
downturn of 2001–2003 is still impacting employment opportunities in Computer, Telecommunications
and Software Engineering. Student interest in enrolment in degree programmes in these areas has plummeted and, at the same time as the industry continues
to recover, a shortfall of graduates is likely in 2–3 years
because of the lag in response from high school applicants.
The culture in Australia has yet to develop for significant industry sponsorship of undergraduate engineering
education. Donations of equipment and facilities are
not common. However, many companies are beginning to subscribe to co-operative education schemes,
where students spend time in the industry environment, working on industry projects as part of the
education programme. Industry does, on occasion,
provide scholarships for undergraduate engineering
students, but this is not widespread. On the other hand,
universities engage heavily with industry in collaborative research programmes and in the provision of
training and consulting services. The income stream
from industry is, therefore, more on a commercial basis
for the provision of services, rather than direct philanthropy.
Australian industry is very willing, however, to
engage in an advisory capacity with universities in the
processes of setting graduate outcome targets, as well
as in educational design and review processes.
Combined degree popularity
The Bachelor of Engineering, the professional engineering degree in Australia, is nominally provided through
a four-year full-time study programme. Many universities provide high-calibre student applicants with the
option of completing two separate degrees over a fiveyear time frame (and on occasions, longer). In these
cases, students are able to combine studies for a full
Bachelor of Engineering degree with a second degree in
disciplines such as Business, Science, Law or Computer
Science. Commonalities in learning activities and academic units between the host, Bachelor of Engineering,
and the second degree, are exploited, thereby satisfying the full requirements of both degree programmes
over the extended study period. Such ‘combined’, ‘dual’
 2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
or ‘double’ degree programmes are sought by highachieving high school leavers. These graduates are very
much in demand by industry.
Offshore programme management
Frequently, at the invitation of foreign governments,
Australian engineering schools are implementing offshore engineering programmes, undifferentiated from
those established on the university’s home campus.
These commercial activities bring pressure on academic staff and university management, as they strive
to ensure that the facilities, teaching staff and quality
systems at the offshore location have the capacity to
deliver the equivalence of educational outcomes and
maintain the overall integrity of the degree offering.
Accreditation of the home campus programme is put at
risk, since it is dependent on the offshore implementation also being deemed to satisfy the criteria set by the
Australian accreditation body.
National competency standards for
engineering practitioners
Engineers Australia, the peak representative body for
the engineering profession in Australia, has a role by
Royal Charter in protecting the standards of engineering practice in Australia. To assist in this purpose, the
Institution has established National Competency Standards defining the competencies expected of practitioners in the separate career categories of Professional
Engineer, Engineering Technologist and Engineering
Associate (Engineers Australia, 2004). Engineers Australia has national responsibility for assessment of candidates in accordance with these standards as well as
the accreditation of undergraduate engineering education programmes.
The Stage 1 Competency Standards define the level
of preparation necessary and adequate for entry to practice in the appropriate career category. An accredited
engineering degree programme at the Professional Engineer level or at the Engineering Technologist level, or
a Diploma programme at the Engineering Associate
(Officer) level is deemed to deliver graduates who are
equipped with the competencies defined in the appropriate standard. The Stage 1 Competency Standard also
provides a generic reference framework for educational
institutions, as they establish a discipline-specific graduate outcome specification and undertake the processes
of educational design.
Stage 2 Competency Standards define the key practice
competencies expected of the mature, independent practitioner in each of the above three career categories, and
are used as a basis for assessing candidates for chartered
status and/or registration.
Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 368–373
DOI: 10.1002/apj
As a foundation signatory to the Washington Accord
and as a signatory to other international engineering
accords and forums, Engineers Australia is able to
ensure the international mobility of Australian engineering graduates, of its members and Chartered Engineers,
and for registered engineers in Australia.
Duplication of effort
Universities and engineering schools devise their own
strategic directions, independently seizing upon individual opportunities and generally competing for resources.
This sometimes leads to duplication of effort in curriculum design, programme development and provision of
resources that could be managed more effectively in a
more controlled environment. Other than for statutory
regulation, intake quota systems, compliance requirements for programmes offered to international students
and the audit function of the AUQA, the universities
operate autonomously and compete in the marketplace.
Loss of identity – the ‘Engineering School or
Resource pressures are driving organisational restructuring in Australian universities. In many cases, the traditional ‘Engineering Faculty’ as an organisational unit
is disappearing. Universities are consolidating organisational management, with engineering departments or
schools frequently falling under a multi-disciplinary
entity, commonly titled as a Division or similar unit.
Divisions typically will embrace combinations of disciplines such as Physical Sciences, Engineering and even
Health Sciences under the leadership of a ‘Pro-Vice
Chancellor’ or similar.
Potential adoption of a Bologna model
The traditional 4-year Bachelor of Engineering study
programme is under pressure with changes in the
capabilities of commencing students, an ever-expanding
engineering knowledge base, and broadened graduate
expectations from industry. Some attention is being
given to the possibilities of a 3 + 2-year, Bolognastyle approach, with 3 years of broadened foundation
studies, and a 2-year ‘Masters’, focussing on a particular
engineering specialisation. At least one university is
planning for adoption of such a structure in 2008. In this
case, the aggregated 3 + 2 sequence would be presented
for accreditation at the level of professional engineer.
 2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Asia-Pacific Journal of Chemical Engineering
A major, national review of engineering education in
1996 (The Institution of Engineers, Australia, 1996))
paved the way for an outcomes-based approach to
the accreditation of engineering education programmes
offered within Australian universities and educational
institutions. The accreditation criteria developed by
Engineers Australia for evaluation of engineering education programmes is closely aligned with the Stage 1
Competency Standard at the appropriate career level.
A fully developed Accreditation Management System
has been established for evaluation of programmes at
the level of Professional Engineer (Engineers Australia,
2005). Full-fledged accreditation management systems
for evaluating programmes at the level of Engineering
Technologist and Engineering Associate (Officer) are
currently under development.
This outcomes-based approach to assessment of education programmes has been a prime driver for innovation in engineering education. It has encouraged universities to also take an outcomes-based approach to the
design, review and continuing improvement of engineering education programmes. Such a process begins
with the development of a comprehensive specification of objectives and targeted graduate outcomes for
the programme. The educational design process then
maps and tracks the delivery of these outcomes by
aggregating the learning outcomes and assessment measures embedded within individual academic study units
throughout the programme.
The emphasis on graduate outcomes and the guidance
of the Stage 1 Competency Standards has encouraged
universities to take a ‘big-picture’ view when establishing graduate outcome targets, ensuring that these
embrace personal and professional capabilities, underpinning skills and knowledge, defined levels of technical competence and broad engineering application
The accreditation criteria defined in the Accreditation Management System require engineering schools
to consult widely with industry, and benchmark both
nationally and internationally as they set up, review and
assess attainment of the defined graduate outcomes. The
criteria ensure that the educational design and review
processes are embedded within a quality management
system that closes the loop on learning outcomes and
assessment systems at the academic unit or course level
as well as the overall programme level. The accreditation criteria require extensive stakeholder interaction
and feedback as well as strong leadership and accountability from the academic teaching team.
Other key characteristics of engineering education
within Australian universities are:
• A key focus on exposing students to professional
engineering practice as part of an integrated learning
design approach.
Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 368–373
DOI: 10.1002/apj
Asia-Pacific Journal of Chemical Engineering
• Strong industry input to the processes of educational
design, review and improvement.
• Co-operative engineering education programmes
where periods of work-place learning are integrated
with the traditional academic programme, and assessment regime.
• The use of technological learning aids and resources
to enrich the learning experiences.
• The emergence of hybrid study programmes that
incorporate a significant distance learning component
and provide flexibility to cater for the variance and
individual needs of learners.
• The use of industry-sponsored capstone projects
where students tackle a real industry project under
joint academic and industry supervision.
part of the teaching load. A number of engineering schools deliver undifferentiated engineering programmes through offshore campuses. Despite these
pressures and diverse responsibilities, Australian engineering schools continue to provide innovative
education programmes with an emphasis on engineering application and exposure to professional engineering practice. Engineers Australia’s accreditation
system requires engineering schools to be accountable
for an outcomes-driven educational design methodology
and a comprehensive quality assurance system ensuring that all graduates satisfy the highest international
Engineering education in Australian universities is
under significant pressure because of diminishing government funding levels and fewer students with the
appropriate background and motivation to commence
engineering studies. Conversely, the demand for graduate engineers in Australia in most disciplines is
very strong. Commercial activities provide an important income source for engineering schools, and fullfee-paying international students form a significant
 2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
AQF. Australian Qualification Framework: Implementation Handbook, 3rd edn. Australian Qualification Framework Advisory
Board: Canberra, 2002.
Boyer EL. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate.
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: Princeton,
Engineers Australia. National Generic Competency Standards, 2004;
Engineers Australia. Accreditation Management System, 2005;
Institution of Engineers Australia. Changing the Culture: Engineering Education into the Future. Engineers Australia: Canberra,
Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 368–373
DOI: 10.1002/apj
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