More uni time on books for budding engineers

The University of Melbourne implemented a radical US-style course restructure last year that has attracted supporters and detractors across Australia. Now, the University of Western Australia says it will adopt the restructure, commonly known as the Melbourne model, within about five years. The new degree structure aligns itself with North America’s “three-plus” formula, which steers students through two phases of study: an initial generalised three-year undergraduate degree followed by a two or three-year specialised postgraduate degree. Melbourne University says the change was necessary for it to remain competitive in the global tertiary education marketplace.Under the current system, an engineer graduates after four years of specialised study with a Bachelor of Engineering and eligibility for professional accreditation with Engineers Australia. At the University of Melbourne, and eventually at UWA, engineers will need to complete at least five years of study to gain a qualification recognised by professional bodies.UWA says prospective engineering students would first undertake a three-year generalist Bachelor of Design degree, followed by two more years of specialist study at postgraduate level for professional accreditation.The university points out that 49% of its engineering undergraduates already spend five years studying by electing to take double degrees.Giving his personal views on the restructure, UWA Young Engineers chairman Damien Backshall said the current engineering degree structure was successful and he had not expected such a radical overhaul.“Already in the engineering degree, a full year is dedicated to general engineering,” Backshall said.He said the general year could be beneficial for many undecided first-year students who were uncertain over which engineering discipline to pursue, by allowing them to postpone the crucial decision until the end of the first year.“On the other hand, for those who have already decided which discipline they plan to study before beginning their course, it can be frustrating having to learn in such detail other areas,” he said.“I fear for some, three years of general study could become too much to bear.”Association of Consulting Engineers Australia chief executive Megan Motto told CIN’s sister publication Contractor the association was willing to support the Melbourne model providing the outcome was more engineers entering the field.“Our member firms are generally supportive, but I guess it is a wait-and-see position,” she said. “We are hoping to get more engineers graduating in Australia – if this proves to be a positive step in that direction then we are happy to support it over the longer term. But there is no proven information on that yet.”Engineers Australia is also taking a wait-and-see stance to the UWA restructure, according to its WA division director Janice Lake.“Engineers Australia is fairly relaxed about the changes to courses, as long as UWA still provides the course content necessary to meet our accreditation requirements,” she said. “And we will be working with UWA on this.”Lake said industry would probably prefer there was an exit point after the initial three-year undergraduate degree, because it would otherwise be waiting a further two years for its graduates.“We think industry at the moment is a little ambivalent about what the prospects are,” she said. “And it really can’t make a judgement call on it until we see a bit more about the course content and how it is going to work.“However, there are lots of universities around the world where this ‘three plus two’ is the way that it is done. American universities follow this. It is not something brand-new. It is just new for us.”Lake said the degree restructure could provide students with more flexibility. “It may be in fact that more students will go into engineering,” she said. “Because [after] they’ve done their three years [they have] the option to go into engineering for the next two years, whereas at the moment they have to make that choice almost at first year.“Providing students have completed the right mix of subjects in the first three years, the industry actually may end up with a bigger pool of engineers – we don’t actually know.”

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