With the successful passing of the Design and Building Practitioners Bill 2019 and the Residential Apartment Buildings (Compliance and Enforcement Powers) Bill 2020, attention now moves to the implementation of the NSW building reforms. These bills are part of a wider industry reform strategy called Construct NSW which is the NSW government’s response to the Shergold-Weir Report released in April 2018.
The university sector has a critical role to play in these reforms and as in the construction industry, many will be expected to lift their game.
Declining entrance standards into many construction courses, industry complaints about the quality of students leaving some universities and the irrelevance of much university research are concerns which the Building Commissioner David Chandler has voiced in numerous forums.
Other commentators have also recently criticised the university sector for lowering entry standards, casualising its workforce, pressuring academics to pass low-grade students and preventing them from speaking-out in fear of reprisal.
These criticisms reflect long-standing concerns from academic staff that paint a portrait of decline in Australian universities driven by an increasingly commercialised approach to education
The built environment disciplines sit uncomfortably within many of our aspiring research-intensive universities.
While an elite architecture school is nice for these universities to boast of, programs like construction and building feature lowly in the faculty caste system.
This is because building and construction is a relatively immature field of research compared to the prestigious disciplines of science, engineering and medicine which produce the high citation rates, big research grants and headline-busting research breakthroughs and patents which these universities so badly need to work their way up the global rankings.
The result is that, in the overall scheme of things, staff and students in the built environment disciplines often get a raw deal with money being syphoned off into other disciplines.
Construction courses in particular, as traditional attractors of large student numbers, often become a cash-cow for other courses, with students being crammed into very large classes and entry standards being reduced to feed what Sydney columnist Elizabeth Farrelly describes as the increasingly bloated university sausage-making machines.
In one university faculty, 45 per cent of all courses with over 150 students are in the construction program and 89 per cent of all courses over 200 are in construction.
Of the 12 disciplines taught in the faculty, average undergraduate construction course enrolment is 148 compared to 44 in the lowest class size discipline and entrance requirements have been consistently lowered over many years to attract these high student numbers.
The construction discipline student-to-staff ratio is 72:1 which is 33 per cent higher than the overall cross-discipline student-to-staff ratio which is 54:1 despite empirical evidence of an inverse correlation between class sizes, enrolments and student satisfaction.
This very poor deal for construction students is defended by arguing that engineering courses in the same university have much higher class sizes, but this cannot be conducive to high quality education, especially in the management disciplines, even though it is accompanied by extra casual support and resources.
The other problem is the incentivisation of highly academic and often indecipherable research which in turn drives recruitment decisions which perpetuate the problem.
Sadly, many students unwittingly base their choice of university on global university rankings which are guided heavily by these academic outputs.
The education they then get is highly intellectualised and delivered by staff whose minds are too often focused on delivering highly academic research in highly cited journals (on which promotion decisions are generally made), rather than the education they deliver.
There are of course many “systems” in place to manage this risk but this is a smoke-screen to shift the risk to already over-loaded staff which masks the brutal reality of academic live in these research-intensive institutions.
The problems which lie at the heart of the current crisis of confidence in the residential apartment market can in many ways be traced back to this system which neglects applied competencies and basic design knowledge in areas like waterproofing, fire spread and simple structural details which have been exposed in debacles like the Mascot and Opal Towers.
I read some interesting research a few years ago that ranked architecture students as the most unhappy in the world (philosophy students were the most happy!).
One of the numerous reasons was the high expectations that were developed in the course (you will be designing the next opera house) which contrasted with the reality that most architects are under paid and will spend their lives drawing details when they leave university.
As building commissioner David Chandler has also pointed out, the lack of ethics in construction education is another problem and it is no wonder that we have so few women in the industry and that much of the industry is afflicted by the type of exploitative, self-serving and winner-takes-all behavior which underpins the quality problems that we see today.
Academics in the built environment must live in the real world and governments need to measure the impact of their research on the communities in which they work.
Academic research in Australia is defined much more narrowly along the lines of medicine and science than it is in other countries like the US where contributing to community debate and making a real-world impact is seen as far more important.
This works much better for built environment and design if creative and professional practice outcomes and impact can be measured and rewarded as part of an academic career.
This is the reason why too many firms in the construction industry have had a poor experience of academic research. We badly need good research in the construction industry but it often takes too long to produce any findings, the results can be too theoretical to use, and solutions can be too radical to implement in the real world.
It’s not surprising therefore that recent research shows that the main source of information for decision-making among some construction professionals is the internet followed by trade journals and magazines.
Sadly, academic peer reviewed papers rank a distant last.
This is a tragic waste of incredible knowledge and talent which the construction sector badly needs to lift its game. While the advancement of Australia and humanity needs our universities to be conducting the sort of long-term, blue-sky research which laid the foundations for many of today’s transformative innovations, they also need to be relevant.
As the Commonwealth renegotiates higher education and vocational education funding, it needs to address the gulf that has emerged between academia and the construction industry because the knowledge that universities produce is becoming an increasingly critical resource in today’s knowledge-based global economy.
Our competitors overseas have already realised this and are engaged in strong partnerships with universities to drive innovation, increased productivity and reform.
Our universities are more relevant to the construction industry than ever. The construction industry faces a knowledge-based future where working smarter rather than harder will be the secret of success.
We need smarter builders educated in more connected and relevant universities. We need the Australian construction industry to better recognise the value of universities and to collaborate more closely with them, to jointly develop, direct and commercialise the knowledge they create.
Returning to the start of this article, it is ironic, given the senior university role of the lead author of the Shergold-Weir Report, that it did not acknowledge these problems in the university system that have undoubtedly contributed to the crisis in confidence in the construction industry it revealed.
Martin Loosemore is Professor of Construction Management, University of Technology Sydney.
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