How an engineering degree was built to become Australia’s best

Published 8 March 2021
Engineering graduate Marnie Atkins

With some of the best engineering laboratories in regional Australia, industry-leading staff and a graduate employment rate of almost 100 per cent, there’s no guessing why Southern Cross University’s engineering degree has been named the best in the country.

Southern Cross was awarded first place in the latest Good Universities Guide rankings, topping the list in the Undergraduate Overall Experience ratings for Australian engineering and technology courses. It also took first place for learning resources, teaching quality and skills development in the same category. The results are based on national student surveys about diverse aspects of their educational experience.

For Professor Peter Coombes, Associate Dean of Education in Southern Cross University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, the ranking reflects his team’s momentous work in securing international-standard accreditation for all specialisations of the University’s Bachelor of Engineering Systems (Honours).

“In 18 months, we have streamlined engineering into one Bachelor degree with specialisations in civil, mechanical and coastal engineering, that includes an honours year,” he said.

“We’ve transformed the degree into a modern multimedia learning mode with small class sizes and a whole-of-system approach that students nationally and internationally are very interested in. We’re intrinsically engaged with national and local industries and stakeholders to broaden student experience and learning, and already the results are starting to show up through market feedback and in rankings such as this.”

Marnie Atkins was among the graduating cohort of 2020, all of whom secured full-time employment before graduation.

In the second year of her degree, Marnie was offered a role as cadet engineer with Transport NSW in roadworks construction and maintenance. She recently successful applied for the Transport NSW two-year graduate program where she began her role in transport modelling in January.

“The best thing about studying at Southern Cross is the knowledgeable and diverse teaching staff, who facilitate great conversations in class, are always available for a chat, and who really prepare us to become leaders in the engineering field. Also, the facilities in Lismore are fantastic. It’s a new building so has state-of-the-art engineering labs and teaching spaces.”


World-class labs for industry learning

Professor Coombes said some people may not know about the industry-leading facilities at Southern Cross University, which include some of regional Australia’s most sophisticated laboratories and simulation machinery.

“On the water engineering side, we have a 10-metre tilting water flume to experiment with hydraulic processes, climate-controlled rooms, rainfall runoff simulator and a wind tunnel to test aerodynamics, all the way through to cutting-edge software to work out what would happen if a cyclone hit the coast and how to protect our ecosystems.

“In civil engineering, we have state-of-the-art machines to test the compression strength of materials such as concrete and timber to ensure the resilience of what we’re designing and building, a 10-tonne self-reaction frame, and in mechanical engineering we have apparatus including 3D printers, our popular robotics software, artificial intelligence, machine learning and programming, and machinery to test the resilience of designs,” he said.

“Southern Cross has a strong point of difference with a whole-of-systems approach. We believe engineers don’t just design and build, but work across the entire science gamut to solve problems, including the health sciences and social sciences. We even teach business skills in our engineering courses now, making for the country’s most well-rounded graduates and internationally competitive degrees.

“We are also the only University that offers Coastal Systems Engineering, which really pulls together all the inputs of solving the issues for tomorrow using local knowledge and projects for global impact, from flood mitigation to managing river systems, the coastal environment, climate change, water quality and habitat, water security, coastal communities and biodiversity.”


Leading staff delivering Australia’s best engineering degree

Southern Cross also boasts an incredibly diverse teaching and academic staff who are global leaders in their engineering fields. Professor Coombes said the University continually refreshes its teaching to stay at the cutting edge of innovation and learning.

“Dr Yee Yan Lim is a structural engineer in our civil program who has developed world-leading technology that uses electronic pulses to determine the integrity of steel and concrete structures. Rather than destructive testing to determine safety, we can use non-destructive testing without any damage to the building, bridge or structure,” Professor Coombes said.

Mechanical engineer Associate Professor Ricardo Vasquez Padilla, who joined Southern Cross University from CSIRO, is an expert and leader in the field of renewable energy, specifically solar, wind and producing energy from waste materials, and is the Chair of Engineering and Information Technology. Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering Professor Nick Ashbolt is an expert in systems thinking, reusing wastewater, renewables and water.

Professor Andrew Rose is an expert in chemical processes in waterways and environments, while Dr Mona Malekzadeh is a geotechnical engineer who works on understanding whether soil – the earth itself – is strong enough for whatever will be built upon it. Dr Maree Lake leads mathematics in the engineering school and teaches transport engineering.

“There are many others too, such as Dr Ahmed Thabet, who makes composites and conducts finite element modelling to find the strength and durability of products, as well as coordinating our students’ comprehensive industry experience,” Professor Coombes said.

“We have very close industry connections and use innovative teaching methods to ensure our graduates are work-ready and science-ready. They are in very high demand, with most final-year students already working locally during their degree. This year we’ve had 100 per cent of our final-year engineering cohort secure employment even before they graduate.

“Our graduates work in a range of roles nationally and internationally. Once engineers have been practising for a while, some opt for management roles, while others prefer to stay working as design engineers on roads, buildings, bridges. Some work in flood-management, helping people avoid flood risk, and some even go on to work in health departments, formulating strategies for the health and wellbeing of patients – which is one of the many fields I’ve worked in, along with a career in policy, economics and molecular science.”

If anyone has ever wondered how ‘meaningful’ engineering can be, Professor Coombes said it’s one of the most fulfilling careers one can pursue.

“Engineers are at the frontline of solving most future challenges, such as renewable energy and climate change issues, but they work as part of multi-disciplinary teams to solve these earth systems challenges, which is why we teach ‘Engineering Systems’.

“Engineers save more lives than medical doctors every year by making sure water is safe, sewerage is safely managed, buildings, roads, transport is safe. Many elements you encounter in everyday life have been part of a design process to make sure they’re safe.”


A new way to learn

While Southern Cross has long been a leader in delivering online education, last year’s COVID restrictions catapulted the University’s engineering degree to being available wholly online, with virtual labs and field trips as well as socially-distant in-person lab experiences.

“Going forward we have the opportunity for students to study from anywhere in the country and in the world, while still having the opportunity to use our fantastic labs and field trips when they prefer. We already have students in China who were unable to travel to Australia this year who have completed their first year online,” Professor Coombes said.

“We are delivering a compelling online experience, through multi-media learning, direct conversations and class learning – we talk and engage with our students now more than we ever have across all sorts of platforms – meeting our students where they’re at and continually gaining momentum. We listen to our students and work closely with them to make our Engineering degree the best student experience possible.”

New engineering graduate Marnie Atkins said she was impressed with how Southern Cross’ engineering staff had pivoted to teaching her degree entirely online in an innovative and engaging way.

“They set up some very technical units – transferring them all online and managing the process to help us continue and complete our study,” she said.

The course is now being delivered on-campus again from Session 1, 2021.

The Bachelor of Engineering Systems (Honours) has full engineering accreditation from Engineers Australia at the level of Professional Engineer for Civil Engineering, and provisional accreditation in Mechanical and Coastal Systems Engineering and will be assessed for full accreditation at this level in 2021. Accreditation by Engineers Australia at the level of Professional Engineer means the course is recognised internationally as a Washington Accord Degree, enabling graduates to work across the globe.

For more information on engineering at Southern Cross University visit

Media contact: Content team