Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Engineering Numbers Aren’t Adding Up

By Ian Lowe

Our universities aren’t producing enough engineers to meet demand, and gender balance remains an issue.

I began studying engineering part-time in 1959. The head of my university, subsequently rebadged as the University of NSW, was arguing then that Australia needed to educate more professional engineers if we were to become an advanced industrial nation. His stated ambition was for UNSW to produce more engineering graduates than any other Australian university.

The latest figures from the Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) show he was right on both counts. UNSW has the largest engineering faculty in the country and produces almost 20% of the graduate engineers each year. But there is a huge gap between supply and demand. ATSE says that about 18,000 engineering jobs are available each year in Australia. The universities only produce about 6000 graduates. So about two-thirds of the positions are filled by engineers coming from overseas. About one-quarter of these arrive on temporary work visas.

This is yet another consequence of the Commonwealth abdicating its responsibility for planning. With universities relatively free to set their recruitment targets for the various areas of study, there has been a shift away from courses that are expensive towards those that are relatively cheap to provide. So engineering, science and applied science are all areas of study that university managers are reluctant to encourage. Courses in law, economics, commerce and business studies don’t require expensive teaching laboratories, so numbers in those areas have expanded dramatically. Our universities now graduate far more lawyers than are needed even for the litigious society we have become, but nowhere near enough engineers to fill the job vacancies.

The other striking feature of engineering studies in Australia is the continuing gender imbalance. Women only account for about 13% of professional engineers, and that figure won’t improve dramatically any time soon. Across the university system, only about 16% of engineering students are female. UNSW is doing much better than average; 21% of its undergraduates are women.

The difference isn’t rocket science: the university has been running an annual Women in Engineering camp in January for students in Years 11 and 12. It began as a small exercise, but this year 90 young women spent 5 days being introduced to possible careers in engineering. That approach really works. In past years, three-quarters of the young women who attended these camps in Year 12 went on to study engineering at university. UNSW also has dedicated scholarships to encourage women into the field.

There is no reason why engineering needs to be dominated by men. I remember being told decades ago that the gender balance is about 50/50 in eastern Europe. In our own region, about 30% of Malaysia’s professional engineers are women and they make up about half of the student population.

ATSE says that this has been achieved by “government policies that recognise the importance of women’s contribution to innovation”. We don’t even have government policies that recognise the importance of innovation generally, let alone encouraging diversity.

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I really wonder what is happening to our food. I remember buying a ham and cheese sandwich from a local shop when I was first working in Sydney. There was a smear of butter on each of the two pieces of bread, with a slice of ham and a slice of cheese as the filling.

I was recently on an aircraft and accepted the offer of a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. To my amazement, the list of ingredients on the back of the paper bag ran to 15 lines of small print. Some of this was incredible detail: the wholemeal bread contained wholemeal wheat flour, thiamine, folic acid, water, yeast, iodised salt, sugar, wheat gluten, vegetable oil or canola oil, vinegar, soy flour, emulsifiers, toasted malt flour from wheat or barley, an acidity regulator and an anti-caking agent. The list of ingredients in the tomato balsamic relish alone took up six lines of fine print.

When I looked at the principal constituents, they were bread (48%), ham (35%), tomato balsamic relish (15%) and cheddar cheese (12%). Yes, you can add up the four numbers: together they make up an amazing 110% of the sandwich. That’s value for money!

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.