Call me a pessimist but it’s pretty hard to ignore the relationships that seem to mock a well-intentioned strategy.
No sooner had the newly appointed NSW Building Commissioner been given responsibility to ‘fix’ the state’s building construction sector, when a major university just up the road from one of the Sydney apartment buildings that has been evacuated due to major structural defects, announced it intends to drastically lower entry requirements for female applicants who wish to pursue a career in engineering. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up! The writers of that wonderful comedy series ‘Utopia’ now screening on ABC have a rich source of material to develop their storyline parodies of government infrastructure project management disasters courtesy of the ‘lunatics in charge of the asylum’.
The newly minted NSW Building Commissioner, David Chandler, came out with all guns blazing. He “warned the state’s construction industry that he will be watching their moves very closely” and said the industry had “a culture of trying to avoid accountability”. “You can be sure that what will get me out of bed every day will be to try and turn the perception of this industry around,” Mr. Chandler was reported as saying. Better Regulation Minister Kevin Anderson backed this up by declaring that Mr. Chandler was the “standout” candidate from a pool of 22 applicants. “He has the breadth of knowledge and in-depth deepdive we need to be able to get this industry back on track,”. With decisions such as the UTS one it might seem that the ‘track’ we are getting ‘back on’ might have developed a few more potholes.
All of those involved in the construction industry would obviously wish Mr. Chandler well in his future endeavors to iron out the shonky practitioners and defective outcomes. But a matter that does perplex me is Chandler’s role as an ‘adjunct professor’ at Western Sydney University. An investigative report undertaken by Fairfax journalists Eryk Bagshaw and Inga Ting titled “NSW universities taking students with ATARs as low as 30” should have been a red flag back in 2017. Of most concern was the data reporting that 99 per cent of the 251 students offered enrolment into a ‘Bachelor of Construction Management’ course did not make the nominated ATAR cut-off of 85. So only 3 out of the 251 students admitted into that 2017 cohort had managed to accumulate a relatively modest entry score of 85 from their year 11 and 12 assessment components? That is both an astounding and incredibly disappointing statistic for our industry.
To properly participate and engage in a tertiary level course of study leading to an award of a degree in Construction Management, it is entirely reasonable to expect higher order academic learning capacity and problem solving capabilities are incumbent in any student cohort. Perhaps one reason we have so many defective buildings being constructed is that getting a qualification associated with becoming a professional builder or engineer and managing complex building construction projects may just have become far too easy? Improvements to the public perception of our industry won’t be helped if the new Building Commissioner ignores the important topic of the lack of accountability of our formal educational systems involved in the training of persons who would wish to gain reputable qualifications to work within our building construction industry. More than half of all students starting a bachelor degree at an Australian university are now admitted on a basis other than their ATAR score with so called ‘early offers’ disregarding the HSC examination results entirely. It is now commonplace to allocate additional ATAR ‘adjustment’ points based on a range of factors such as social disadvantage, geographic location, disability or illness. Now we can add ‘gender’ to this mix.
UTS Director of Women in Engineering and IT, Dr. Arti Agarwal, said she believed her university would be the first to do this. Dr. Agarwal claimed that a better gender balance would lead to improved student outcomes and better buildings and design in the wider world. The faculty’s research found that bonus points could boost female enrolments in some engineering courses by more than 10%. “The decision would not lower the quality of the graduates,” she said. “I really cannot stress this enough – we are not taking people who don’t deserve to be here”. I doubt many would actually follow Dr. Agarwal’s reasoning. Adjustment points raise a student’s tertiary entrance rank for the university that allocates them. If a female applicant’s ATAR is 69, then UTS would consider it to be 79 after adding 10 extra points. The 10-point adjustment was approved by the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board but at this stage the UTS revised rank won’t be recognised by any other university. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Director of higher education at the Grattan Institute, Andrew Norton, doubted an ATAR concession would encourage more women to study engineering. “It’s a very male-dominated workplace, and work we did recently show that even when women have the qualification they don’t work in the area because of the nature of the workplace,” he said.
Alifa Monjur is a university student studying commerce. She missed the ATAR requirement for her first choice of study by half a point and believes a 10-point advantage is excruciatingly generous. She asked the rather obvious question of how two students with the same ATAR, why only the one born with XX chromosomes is given a 10-point bonus opportunity? She went on to observe that rather than being a step forward to attract more women into engineering as a career, it could be seen as a step backwards. She explained this by stating that “Lowering the ATAR isn’t the way to go. It’s not that girls aren’t achieving the ATARs needed to get into engineering, the issue is that they don’t want to study it. Lowering the ATAR requirement feels almost insulting. You don’t need to lower your expectations; girls are smart enough. Why not address the real problem? The low standing of engineering as a career among young women and girls. Instead of being proactive, which could be by promoting engineering careers amongst high-achieving female students via scholarships or early recruitment, UTS sticks on a short-term Band-Aid”. It’s hard not to agree with her views on this matter.
The respected SMH architecture journalist, Elizabeth Farrelly, described the UTS idea as “misconceived, unintelligent and profoundly sexist”. She said that Dr. Agrawal’s claim that “giving women 10 bonus entrypoints did not amount to lowering the bar. But of course that’s exactly what it means. Set against a broader higher-education background, of falling entry standards, pressure to pass students, sub-literate postgrads, casualised staff, million-dollar managerialists and billion-dollar buildings, it makes you wonder whether either of those two magic words – higher education – still apply.”
So we now have a NSW Building Commissioner. Hooray! 9 months on from Opal Tower and Mascot Towers, a multi-storey apartment complex in Darwin “came close to catastrophic collapse” during its construction, according to court documents in a $6 million lawsuit against the structural engineer at the centre of a separate government probe into non-compliant buildings. The building’s structural engineer is being sued for alleged breach of contract, negligence and misleading conduct. A statement of claim alleges major faults began to appear in December 2016, including cracking in the first-floor concrete slab. The structural engineer has been accused of under-designing nine other buildings.
The broader problem obviously extends way beyond NSW and is much larger than most people would realise. And one of the root causes of the problem is the systemic degradation of formal training delivery and the validity of assessment of capabilities, knowledge and skills extending amongst our vast workforce from building tradespersons right through to construction professionals and consultants. The rapid decline in our construction standards and the inability to ensure quality outcomes in building construction projects must be stopped but there is little evidence that there is any desire to actually take the required steps to correct it. Quite the opposite, the tertiary education sector seems intent to continuously seek new ways in which to lower the bar. It’s not hard to see which direction the industry is headed.