Australia leads the world of mining education

University of Queensland students learning about mine safety using virtual reality to interact in a virtual mine.

Australian universities continue to head the pack in the QS World University Rankings for mineral and mining engineering courses, with five appearing in the top 10. Australian Mining investigates what sets Australian universities apart.

Curtin University’s Kalgoorlie outpost, the Western Australian School of Mines (WASM), has again guided the school to the top ranking in Australia and second in the world for mineral and mining engineering courses.

While Colorado School of Mines was awarded the No.1 QS ranking, the rest of the top five universities in 2020 are Australian – Curtin University, University of Western Australia, University of New South Wales and University of Queensland.

Rounding out Australia’s top 50 representation are Monash University (7th), University of Melbourne (16th), University of Wollongong (24th), University of Adelaide and University of Newcastle (equal 30th).

With notable alumni including Saracen Mineral Holdings managing director Raleigh Finlayson, IGO chief executive Peter Bradford and Northern Star Resources chairman Bill Beament, it is no surprise that Curtin’s WASM is regarded as a leading producer of industry professionals.

With the Goldfields region on its doorstep, WASM gives students the opportunity to learn not only the academic requirements for a career in mining, but also the practical skills required for jobs at a mine.

Curtin University vice chancellor professor Deborah Terry says the rankings success is credit to its dedication to high-quality research and teaching, a high level of industry collaboration and a commitment to being an international leader across all study fields.

“The WASM provides graduates and researchers with a range of important opportunities,” Terry tells Australian Mining.

“As the majority of this course is taught at Curtin’s Kalgoorlie campus, students have a unique opportunity to study in the heart of Western Australia’s most notable mining town and maximise their exposure to industries that operate there.”

This opens up opportunities such as part-time work with mining companies and suppliers while studying, which can lead to meeting key contacts for later life, full-time work during university breaks, thesis projects and graduate roles.

“Students are also exposed to industry speakers from a variety of operations and aspects of the mining supply chain during their courses,” Terry says.

“Small groups are able to visit mining operations and see first-hand the mining techniques and situations that they are learning about in class.”

Real-life experiences aren’t just limited to Kalgoorlie mines, with Curtin supporting camps for students to visit Pilbara iron ore mines, as well as other Australian regions.

To keep up with the ever-evolving industry, Curtin has revised its mining engineering curriculum to incorporate the technical skills required for a modern mining professional.

“The future employability of Curtin’s graduates will depend on our ability to respond to digital disruption,” Terry says.

“We need to ensure our students are equipped to handle the changing landscape of mining, particularly when it comes to the increasing use of autonomous mining, robotics technology, blockchain as well as artificial and additive manufacturing.

“The new curriculum will ensure the school capitalises on the opportunities presented by the rapid technological transformations impacting the sector.”

How Curtin University prepares its students clearly pays off, with an employment rate of up to 93 per cent for its mining engineering students.

It isn’t just the universities that understand the importance of providing the Australian mining industry with skilled graduates to contribute to the future.

University of Queensland first-year engineering students develop an autonomous mine vehicle on a project day.

Contracting companies, such as PYBAR Mining Services are jumping on board, providing sponsorship and support to education institutions within mining schools.

PYBAR has recognised Curtin’s excellence in education and has been a sponsor of the WASM graduates’ association for four years.

The Australian contractor strengthened this partnership in March, announcing that it would offer the PYBAR Scholarship for Engineering Excellence to one full-time student studying a resources related undergraduate degree for the first time in 2020.

PYBAR chief executive officer Brendan Rouse says there has been a drop in engineering students and graduates entering the mining field, so the scholarship is another way for the company to contribute to the industry’s future.

“WASM has a strong reputation for excellence with many of its graduates employed in the Australian mining sector,” Rouse says. “We would like to give a deserving student a similar opportunity.

“We believe we have a responsibility to nurture future generations of mining professionals and we take this very seriously.”

With Queensland home to some of Australia’s top mining regions, including the Bowen Basin, Surat Basin and Gaililee Basin, University of Queensland students have an opportunity to complete placements, work experience and site visits at some of the country’s busiest mine sites.

Professor Ross McAree, Head of School for the School of Mining and Mechanical Engineering, says it is essential to attract Australia’s best young minds to the mining sector to ensure the industry has the workforce it needs.

Like Curtin, the University of Queensland has also reviewed its mining programs to determine how best the institution can prepare its graduates for successful careers in the sector.

“The challenge in educating the contemporary resources engineering professional is the staggering breadth of knowledge that our graduates are now expected to have,” McAree says.

“Not only do they require a detailed knowledge of geology, mining practices and methods, geotechnical engineering, mine design and mineral economics, but they are expected to have knowledge in areas of emerging importance to the sector such as data analysis, artificial intelligence (AI) and equipment and process automation.”

To equip students with this wide range of knowledge, University of Queensland students studying a Bachelor of Engineering from 2021 onwards will complete a common first year exposing them to the fundamentals of engineering, before those interested in a career in resources take a mining engineering major to build their knowledge.

The university has another dimension to its new curriculum, the option of graduating with both a Bachelor and Master of Engineering, with students applying the practical elements of the course at mines being the focus of the additional year of study.

“We think these graduates are going to be very highly sought after for the comprehensiveness of their knowledge, spanning mining engineering and their base engineering discipline,” McAree says. “We anticipate they will be the archetype of the modern resources engineer.”

University of Queensland isn’t just preparing mining’s future minds academically, with the new degree programs including up to one year of placement at a mine, refining their skills in a real-life situation.

“Everything that our students do in their studies is directed towards the practical application of knowledge,” McAree says.

“Engineering students need to spend 12 weeks in industry as part of their program and many work during their summer breaks in Queensland mines and benefit enormously from the experience.

Attracting more graduates is essential for the future, as the number of students studying mining engineering across Australia is “unsustainably low,” due to the “wrongly held but vocally expressed” view that mining is a duty industry, according to McAree.

With demand for graduates greater than supply, the University of Queensland’s employment rate in the mining industry is in the 90 per cent band.

Mining isn’t the only career option for graduates, with their niche knowledge and skills making them attractive for other areas related to the industry such as finance.

University of Queensland also aims to keep up with the ever-growing sector, as the implementation of technology and automation grows, ensuring students are prepared with knowledge such as data analytics.

With five universities ranked in the top 10 and nine in the top 50, Australia is clearly a world leader in educating future mining professionals, due to the relevance of the sector within Australia.

“Teaching and researching are inseparable. When you have good, industry-relevant research, you get excellence in teaching and together the two have ensured the high global rankings we enjoy,” McAree concludes.

This article also appears in the May edition of Australian Mining.

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