Harper has a Bachelor of Economics with honours from the University of Queensland and a Master of Economics and Doctor of Philosophy from the Australian National University. Before becoming the dean, he was Professor emeritus at the Melbourne Business School, a graduate school of the University of Melbourne.
Harper began his career working at the Reserve bank, after completion of his PhD. He was the inaugural chairman of the Australian Fair Pay Commission before that body was abolished in 2009. He then joined Deloitte's Melbourne office as a partner, and then senior adviser. He headed the Federal Government's Competition Review, releasing the final report ("the Competition Policy Review" or "Harper Review")  of 56 recommendations on 31 March 2015. He was appointed to the board of the Reserve Bank in 2016  before returning to academia as the Dean of the Melbourne Business School, in 2018.
Harper was elected to the Australian Fellowship of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2000 and later elected to the Fellowship of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
Harper was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in the 2020 Queen's Birthday Honours, "for distinguished service to education in the field of economics, and to public and monetary policy development and reform."
Harper is a professing Christian and often speaks publicly about his Christian faith.
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- Ian Harper Profile - The Conversation https://theconversation.com/profiles/ian-harper-8628
- Patrick Durkin "Hardheaded Economist Ian Harper to Guide Interest Rates" AFR May 5, 2016 http://www.afr.com/news/economy/hardheaded-economist-ian-harper-to-guide-interest-rates-20160505-gondgc
- Daniel Hurst "Competition review urges easing of rules on pharmacies and trading hours" The Guardian, 31 March 2015(English)
- Tim Dodd "Melbourne business-school-chief-shares-control-with-deputy" The Australian.com.au 11 April 2018 https://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/melbourne-business-school-chief-shares-control-with-deputy/news-story/8dc6472d61916f03b28467b47bc696d1
- "Economics for Life". Acorn Press. Retrieved 11 September 2011.
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- https://www.acc.edu.au/podcast/ian-harper/The Inspiration Project