Society & Culture

Can engineers reimagine our universities for the future?

Susie Pearn and Ian Harper | 14 August 2019 | 24:38

Podcast transcript: Can engineers reimagine our universities for the future?

Kalay Maistry: Hi, I’m Kalay Maistry and welcome to Engineering Reimagined. Humanity depends on engineering to help solve the wicked problems our world faces.

In this podcast series we explore how, like engineers, people from all walks of life are reimagining the future and their leadership roles in it. What can we learn from our guests’ compelling and inspiring stories to help us shape and design a better future and reimagine engineering?


Universities are ancient institutions, with the world’s oldest – the University of Al-Karaouine in Fez, Morocco – founded in 859 AD. They have long been considered the melting pot of society’s ideas, culture and change, responsible for kickstarting social revolutions such as the 1968 protests that saw students across the world march against the Vietnam War.

Some of their customs, such as the cap and gown, which adorned during today’s graduation ceremonies, have stood the test of time, while others are dramatically changing.

What role will universities play in the future against the backdrop of new technologies? Will the advent of digital learning mean that university campuses become a thing of the past?

Our two guests today are professor Ian Harper, Dean of Melbourne Business School at the University of Melbourne and Susie Pearn, Client Director, Education and Research, Built Environment, at global engineering and infrastructure advisory company, Aurecon.

Ian is an Australian economist best known for his work in public policy, who has worked with governments, banks, corporates and leading professional services firms at the highest levels. He has been a Partner of Deloitte Access Economics and currently sits on the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia. He became the sixth dean of Melbourne Business School at the University of Melbourne in March 2018.

Susie began working in social infrastructure more than 20 years ago and has specialised in the sector ever since. She has played lead management roles in the planning and delivery of numerous infrastructure programs and projects, including several worth over one billion U.S. dollars. She is passionate about having a positive impact on people’s lives through education and research.

Today, Susie and Ian are discussing how universities need to “reimagine” their futures and what role engineers can play in assisting them achieve this transformation.


Susie Pearn: Ian, welcome to the Engineering Reimagined Podcast.

Ian Harper: Thank you, Susie.

Susie Pearn: The first time that we crossed paths was back in the 90s when I was doing my MBA at the Melbourne Business School, and I remember that you were lecturing in economics. And you were one of the lecturers that was well respected, and who was known to be a great lecture and a fantastic storyteller. It was so much so that it was actually really hard to get into your lecture rooms.

Ian Harper: Oh, right.

Susie Pearn: And to be totally honest, when I was at uni, I used to struggle to stay awake in my lectures, but you kept me awake.

Ian Harper: Good.

Susie Pearn: I'm really delighted to have you join us today and to be able to share you with, I guess, an unbounded audience. My first question is what drew you to be an academic in the first place?

Ian Harper: What drew me was the independence that academics have to think and write and speak about issues that they regard as important. It was the freedom to write, to think, to speak, to be an opinion maker in your own right, that appealed to me.

Susie Pearn: So, from the time that you began, and now to you your role as the dean, how do you see that universities have changed over that time or the environment for universities has changed over that time, and particularly the connection between universities and businesses?

Ian Harper: Well, universities have changed quite dramatically. Now, in fact, it is for more than 40 years since I started university as an undergraduate myself obviously, the universities for much of that time were heavily dependent on the government for funding. They still are dependent on the government, but nowhere near the same extent. And in those days, the universities were effectively forbidden from raising income from any other source. And that constrained their growth.

Ian Harper: Now that the universities can charge whatever they want to charge for foreign students, for international students. They can also charge domestic students but, of course, those fees are capped. Nevertheless, tuition is now a major source of revenue for universities, which it never was at least post 1972 when University fees were abolished by then Whitlam Government. And needless to say, over the last 10 or 15 years, with the rapid growth of international students, particularly from China, but not exclusively from China, and the development more generally, of the of the developing world. So, there are more and more people in our region who can afford to take tertiary education. This has been a bonanza for universities.

Ian Harper: I mean, here in the state here in Victoria, the states’ two largest export earners are the University of Melbourne and Monash University. So, this has become very, very big business. As a result of which the universities have become wealthier and more powerful.

Susie Pearn: So, if you then look ahead and having just looked back, what more do you see in terms of change ahead?

Ian Harper: And the big thing that's happened to both of them, the business and universities in the last 20-25 years has been the digital revolution. That has created an enormous disruption in the way that traditional Australian businesses have operated and the structure, the industrial sector, which industries have grown, which haven't grown. And the university being right in the heart of education and knowledge business, have found themselves swept up in this on both sides. They've had to transform the way they do their business, and they've been called on to supply skills for the digital economy, for the knowledge economy, an awful lot has happened in that time and the universities have been pushed into business themselves, partly because the government has freed them and partly then because the government has withdrawn and pushed them out into the world. And they've taken that on with relish, really, and grown dramatically.

Susie Pearn: And how do you think universities need to continue to change going forward?

Ian Harper: In this country, the bulk of our universities, certainly the biggest ones are in cities. So when you look into the future, as you've asked me to do, what I see is the increasing dominance of services. High value added professional, technical services. Professional services, health, education, financial services. They'll be engines of growth in the cities and they'll be fed by the growth of the cities and they in turn will draw upon the technology, the insight, the know-how and the skills, which a modern university can provide, and the university in turn will be fed by that. The universities are in the cities, they will feed cities and be fed by the cities: there's the future.

Susie Pearn: Do you think that they're changing fast enough? Is there more that they need to do than you've seen so far?

Ian Harper: Universities are ancient institutions. The oldest university was established in the 14th century. So, they're essentially medieval institutions. And as anybody who's attended a graduation ceremony at the university would quickly realize, a number of those medieval habits are still well and truly alive within universities and are recognized by them. Now, there's a good side to that, you don't want universities to change too rapidly because they have an important role in curating: that is to say preserving, looking after, the stock of human understanding and knowledge.

You want an institution that firstly, values the fact that people can contribute what they what they think: in seminars, in written work, in classrooms, and it's very important for us to preserve the fact that the University is a place where there is freedom of speech and freedom of thought, academic freedom and its broadest sense. So, that requires a particular institutional structure where those things are valued and preserved.

On the other side, universities have obviously been fermenting places for social revolutions in various dimensions you think of, you know, the 1968 revolutions and Berkeley and University of Paris and such like and Vietnam marches and so forth. So, you do expect universities also to be places where there is some, you know, agitation for social change. Now, you're talking about technical change or, if you like, change in the business world, technological change coming from the digital world, there the universities are and have been at both ends of the spectrum. So, there are universities like Harvard, for instance, which have entire classrooms that just consist of screens on walls. And you can participate in, you know, HBX programs from anywhere in the world and be literally a face on a wall but it's all in virtual reality, and almost you're like there. Together with the traditional classroom instruction lecturer at the front, students around, people asking questions, conversations taking place, they're both there. And the universities, as a group, have not jumped with the digital revolution and simply said, "Wow, we could do all of this online."

I spoke several years back on this very subject to a group of investment bankers who'd come from around the world for this particular convention in Sydney, and I made exactly the point, "This is a global investment bank, why are you here? Let alone in one room talking the business of this conference, why don't we do the whole thing on the web? Just do a webcast, right?" Well, they just looked at you. Don't be absurd. We need to be together, to talk through these ideas, to confront one another, challenge one another, eyeball one another, enjoy a drink with one another, all that human interaction is integral to the business of investment banking.

Well, the same is true of any intellectual pursuit, clearly the university being in the same box, so my answer is that the universities will need time to change and some of that chain dragging is a good thing because they have a role in curation and preservation. Some of it is a good thing because there are aspects of the way the universities operate, "We don't want to change." And then other aspects? Yes, we'll see the universities rather more tentative and slower off the mark in other areas that where, you can be frustrated because businesses are looking and saying, "Come on guys, you gotta get with the program here. This is not how it's done anymore. And unless you change we really can't do business with you we will have to do it ourselves, right?" And that happens, particularly in the area of business schools.

Susie Pearn: So, you can see then businesses driving that change?

Ian Harper: Oh, yeah.

Susie Pearn: What else do you think will drive the change and keep pushing the universities to transform?

Ian Harper: That is quite clear Susie, young people, young people. One of the great strengths of the University, of course, is that it is a place where students come, and that's where the impetus comes for change, for new ideas, for challenge, for people who, who think the old way of doing this is just wrong, There's no coincidence that right from the earliest days, it was the young people coming to the university, to be a part of the conversation. And then, you know, learning, and, of course, at some point saying basically, "Excuse me, I don't think you're right." And having an environment in which that is not just encouraged, it's actively pursued.

Susie Pearn: What role do you think engineers can play in re-engineering education and research?

Ian Harper: You know, just in case it ends up being the case that my colleague, the dean of engineering, listens to this and thinking, "What on earth are you doing talking about engineering?" Yes, I'm not an engineer. And

Ian Harper: We need to turn to those people who make things work, and I'm no engineer but that's how I understand engineering. That engineers are classically experts in in designing and building and making things that actually work: bridges that stand up. In this instance, then we need engineers and, of course, architects who make it appealing to look at and to live in, but importantly, it needs to work. That we are able to be together in cities, in more concentrated groups, in more densified places, without tripping over each other, causing each other to be distressed because these systems don't work,

Ian Harper: But in the right physical, and then social context, creating spaces where people can meet up and encounter one another, and discuss these ideas. [inaudible 00:27:33] Pour all that, if you like, into the core of the city, so that more and more of us encounter one another in environments that are conducive to creative thinking, that's where the productivity comes from But if it doesn't work, Susie, if we trip over each other or we can't get in or it's too crowded, it's too unpleasant, then people don't come and if they don't come this magic doesn't work.

Ian Harper: So, there's a job for engineers to be thinking about the, well, yeah the engineering solutions to all of this, including, you know, all the possibilities, for instance, that are opened up, when autonomous vehicles become much more common. So, I would look to engineers to do that. And I think that dealing with congestion, dealing with obviously, you know, pollution, all of the physical downsides to densification is a rich mine for engineers to dig away at, you know, into the foreseeable future.

Susie Pearn: So, if you then take it to a campus level, and with the changes that you've spoken about already, how do you see campuses needing to change into the future? And what role do you see engineers being able to play in that?

Ian Harper: it's already the case that the universities are over capitalized with lecture theatres. at the Melbourne business school we're planning, seeking planning approval for a new 11 story, building and there will be no, enormous lecture theatres in that building, that technology is just gone. Think about how much capital, how much space, how much bricks and mortar is devoted to that particular function: one person standing in front, surrounded by 1500 people in tiered lectures. Well, if you're going to change that, you change the whole physical structure of the building. What will be important is the, and we're hoping to build this and our architects and engineers are doing exactly that as we speak, if you like coming up with a framework, a structure of a building that will facilitate as much human interaction, as well as small group engagement, as well as socializing, as well as stimulus, I mean, involving business directly, incubators, some businesses, possibly Aurecon, taking some space in this building.

Ian Harper: We're literally co-developing and co-working with students, with faculty on ideas,

Susie Pearn: optimizing the assets that the universities have, is really topical. There's an opportunity to, not only share and utilize the assets better within a university, including research assets, but I also wonder how much of an opportunity there is to share outside of the university, to be able to get the best that we can out of the investments that we put into research assets, what are your thoughts on that?

Ian Harper: Certainly the University of Melbourne is heavily into an investigation exactly what it calls its estate. Which to your point is, what property do we own? What buildings do we own? Where are they located? And are they optimized for the functions which they perform? And when we think about that optimization, we're thinking about it in the context of the changing dynamic of what it is we're trying to do. Even the use of laboratory space and the capacity for scientists, to engage with others outside is changing, we're opening up spaces and moving things around.

Ian Harper: Given that we're moving to a knowledge economy, well we are in a knowledge economy and that's the future, as I've tried to say a bit earlier on, the natural consonants between the life of the city and the life of the university is growing not shrinking. The city used to be essentially about manufacturing, or even agriculture, and so, the university was extremely distant from that.

Ian Harper: The world of commerce and the world of the universities are coming closer together, not further apart. And so, the capacity for this mutual co-design, co-experimentation, you know, the learning from one another, I think, there's more of that to come right across the disciplines, not just in business I might add.

Susie Pearn: So, that's a segue to thinking then about the projects that we do and the infrastructure that we create as a platform for research and innovation and learning. So, I'm wondering what your reflections are on that as a, I guess, a way that engineers can play a direct role in furthering knowledge?

Ian Harper: What resonates with me as I hear you speak there is, again, this idea that engineers are, sort of genetically, if you like, inclined to practical outcomes, to making things work. And projects are ways in which that learning, that theory that goes with it can be combined with a practical reality and understanding, learning by doing call it what you like. So, if your suggestion or your proposal, Susie, is that engineering, you know, by definition is used to this idea of co-designing and co-delivery because that's the way it actually works, if that's the intuition then much more of academic life will be involved with that type of interaction because as I say, in a knowledge economy, there's a much greater conformity of interest between what the university is doing and what the city requires, an engineer is an expression of that.

Ian Harper: So, if it's the case of the engineering faculty, through its emphasis on project work, can lead the rest of the university into thinking along similar lines and making co-design and co-delivery, less foreign to other parts of the university because our engineering colleagues say, you know, "Hello, that's what we do. We've been doing that since the year dot." Well, terrific. Once more, we see the benefit of the university as an area in which we can have this degree of collaboration across disciplines with people talking about different ways that they see the world.

Susie Pearn: You recently shared an interview on LinkedIn with Scott Galloway, who's a Clinical Professor of Marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business, in which Scott says that, "The mother's milk of growth is young, engineering savvy talent. How do you feel about that statement?

Ian Harper: I think it was terrific, which is why I shared it. And he went on to point out that the big tech companies locate themselves in big cities or near big cities where they can get access to top flight research universities, and lots of young people, particularly as you say, tech savvy, which would include obviously, engineering, but, you know, digital savvy, young people who are bright, who have a STEM mindset, right? And the outfit, whatever it is, Amazon or Google or whoever is able to draw on that and in turn, feed it through to the city.

Susie Pearn: I'm wondering if there's a role or what role engineers can play in curriculum within a business school? Arguably, there's a inherent skills that an engineer has or capabilities an engineer has that are capabilities that are arguably future ready capabilities, I wonder what collaboration there is there between engineering and business in bringing those capabilities into our learning. I'm questioning more the role that an engineer can play in educating an accountant or educating a strategy consultant through the application of the design capability that we have in terms of co-design, creativity, iteration and the like.

Ian Harper: Well, I suppose the nearest example I can think of comes from my time at Deloitte where our Chief Strategy Officer was in fact an engineer, and introduced design thinking which is a classically engineering approach to a professional services firm. The notion that interdisciplinary conversations can produce surprising connections, I mean, that ought to be what the university is all about.

Susie Pearn: So, bring it back to a personal level now. I have two children, and they've just started University and I've got another one who's not far away. And there's lots of talk about when they graduate that the world will have changed, and what they're studying now may no longer be relevant. But I have faith that they're going to ride this wave. It's more people like me who are well into their careers but, you know, we still have a long way ahead of us, hopefully. And, I'm curious as to yourself, and how you, as the world's changed around you, as you've described today, how have you thought about your own transformation, and what advice would you have for others?

Ian Harper: We need to continue to be curious. And that means continuing to enjoy learning how to learn. Keeping our minds active, thinking positively about the future, because of all the opportunities that are there, that it creates and opens up for us is very important. Yes you can become despondent, but you know, human hope and the capacity for human development and growth and adaptation are just, you know, extraordinarily powerful and driven us really since we came down out of the trees. I'm reading a book presently, some listeners may have read it [inaudible 00:52:00] but if you haven't, it's really very good by a man called Ian Morris who is a Paleoanthropologist, and it's called Why the West Rules—For Now. He visualizes how it was that, you know, Homo erectus, and then Homo sapiens, worked out how to deal with seeds and when to plant them and how to cultivate, it's very compelling, it's beautifully written. And he just reminds us of the innate capability for ingenuity, if you like, for engineering, right?

Ian Harper: Very quickly we're separated from, you know, other members of the animal kingdom, by that ingenuity, by that creativity, by that drive, to know and to change and to adapt. So like you, I'm very confident of the future.

Susie Pearn: Ian last time we spoke, I felt like I could talk with you all day, and I feel the same way today.

Ian Harper: Well, thank you.

Susie Pearn: ... but times up. So, thank you so much for the conversation. I really enjoyed it and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

Ian Harper: My pleasure, Susie, all the best.

Kalay Maistry: Thanks for listening! If you haven’t already, please leave us a rating in iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts and remember to share this episode with your family and friends. Follow Aurecon on social for updates on our upcoming episodes.

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Ian Harper asks what role universities will play in the future

Universities are ancient institutions, with the world’s oldest – the University of Al-Karaouine in Fez, Morocco – founded in 859 AD. They have long been considered the melting pot of society’s ideas, culture and change, responsible for kickstarting social revolutions such as the 1968 protests that saw students across the world march against the Vietnam War.

Some of their customs, such as the cap and gown which adorned during graduation ceremonies, have stood the test of time, while others are dramatically changing.

Against the backdrop of new technologies, what role will universities play in the future? Will the advent of digital learning mean that university campuses become a thing of the past?

In this episode of Engineering Reimagined, Professor Ian Harper, Dean of Melbourne Business School at the University of Melbourne and Susie Pearn, Former Industry Leader, Education and Research at Aurecon, discuss how universities need to reimagine their futures and what role engineers can play to help them achieve this transformation. We also explore the connections between universities and businesses.

Meet our guest and host

Learn more about Susie Pearn and Ian Harper.

Susie Pearn, Aurecon

Susie Pearn

Former Industry Leader, Education and Research, Aurecon

Susie has more than 20 years of experience in social infrastructure. She has held lead management roles in the planning and delivery of numerous infrastructure programmes and projects, including several over one billion U.S. dollars in value.

Her advisory skillset and asset management background brings a diverse perspective to her role. She has an interest in the convergence of education and research services, infrastructure and technology and how these can help create a new paradigm with better outcomes. Susie is passionate about having a positive impact on people’s lives through education and research.

Ian Harper

Ian Harper

Dean of Melbourne Business School at The University of Melbourne

Ian is an Australian economist best known for his work in public policy, who has worked with governments, banks, corporates and leading professional services firms at the highest levels. In 2016, he was appointed to the Board of the Reserve Bank of Australia and chaired the Federal Government’s Competition Policy Review, a “root and branch” review of Australia’s competition policy, laws and regulators. He is also a Senior Advisor to Deloitte Access Economics Pty Ltd.

Ian has authored several books such as Confessions of a Meddlesome Economist and Economics for Life, which won the Australian Christian Book of the Year Award. He became the sixth dean of Melbourne Business School at the University of Melbourne in March 2018.

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