Where open minds meet open mines

Mining Education Australia (MEA) is an important part of the modern fabric of Australia’s tertiary mining education, supporting around 80–85 per cent of the current crop of mining graduates.

The program was borne of the Minerals Tertiary Education Council (MTEC), founded and established in October 1999 by the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) for the purpose of building a progressive tertiary learning environment for the education of minerals professionals.

This was considered a crucial step following the results of a discussion paper published in 1998, Back from the Brink: Reshaping Minerals Tertiary Education, which concluded that the MCA should fund the MTEC in order to foster international competitiveness and drive in the face of changing times.

Australian mineral education, it concluded, was “fragile”, with “small student populations [and] high relative costs making mineral-specific courses vulnerable to closures”.

“In the late 1990s, there was concern in the industry around the fragility of mining schools, the numbers of mining graduates, and possibly the quality of those mining graduates,” explained Professor Steven Hall, executive director of MEA.

“Through funding, the MCA decided it would intervene by supporting new, young, academic staff across the country in the disciplines of geology, mining and metallurgy.”

The result of this intervention mentioned by Hall was the formation of MEA in 2007, a collaborative partnership involving a shared third- and fourth-year curriculum across three leading universities; Curtin University (the Western Australian School of Mines, Kalgoorlie campus); the University of Queensland; and the University of New South Wales. The University of Adelaide soon followed, resulting in four universities in partnership overall.

Each year, the best-performing research students from each university are brought together to the MEA Student Conference to present their projects and findings to an audience of peers and industry in competition for financial prizes.

Hall explained that the biggest incentive for the students, however, was not the prize so much as the opportunity to demonstrate to a wider audience that they are “the best of the best”.

“It’s often very tight at the top and we award a first, second and third place, though last year the results were so close we awarded two students third place,” said Hall.

The four internally run competitions within the four member universities typically select the best four or five students to attend a national final, which usually takes place around the end of the academic year in October at a specially chosen location where judging can take place.

Last year’s event took place on October 23, 2017 at the WA School of Mines (WASM) in Kalgoorlie, where in addition to the conference itself, the students were arranged an underground mine visit as well as an Indigenous experience through a local Aboriginal tourist organisation, things that would otherwise be difficult to experience, particularly for east coast students.

As part of a wider aim, the MEA’s cross-curriculum benefits afford students the opportunity to scope out potential post-graduation work environments. This is particularly useful since, according to Hall, the majority of domestic Australian students study in their home states.

“I think that’s a real advantage,” he said. “There has been some mobility of students who typically think they may have a greater opportunity of finding employment in Western Australia; for example if the east coast coal industry is doing it tough and jobs are not that readily available, students can transfer over to Western Australia, have a look around with much less risk, complete their degree, and develop a network to get you a job here after they finish, and vice versa.

“If there was a boom and the Olympic Dam expansion went ahead in South Australia, you could see students moving to the University of Adelaide to complete their final year. They know all the angles on it.”

Hall predicted that the 80–85 per cent figure for MEA-attributed mining engineering graduates may drop to around 60–65 per cent in the next few years, with lower numbers of STEM graduates and a rising sense of competition for international students. He also added that more could be done to address gender imbalance and a push for greater diversity in recruiting.

“My own view is that the recent push into STEM has probably been more for the benefit of science to the detriment of engineering, explained Hall. “We’ve seen a little bit of movement of students from one discipline to another, but it’s not really increased the pool of qualified school leavers, so I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in that space.

“I think as engineers — and this is a personal view  — we have to look at how and why we’re teaching mathematics, and why we’re asking for the highest level of mathematics qualifications coming from the school leavers; one reason we are predominantly male-dominated in our classroom if you look at the gender balance at the highest level of mathematics it’s two-thirds male in Western Australia, but at the next level down it’s two-thirds female.

In addition to adapting to falling STEM numbers, the MEA is also preparing for the increasing trend in mining towards technology, particularly in the realm of automation and data analysis. MEA members are currently at work on a new elective entitled ‘Automation and Data Analytics in Mining’, which is expected to be offered as an elective across the four MEA-participant universities later this year before becoming a winter school in 2019.

“We are pedalling fast, and have already done the outlines and the basic work,” Hall explained. “We obviously have to put some quality flesh on the skeleton so that we can offer a quality program linked to industry.

“In fact, we are hoping to go up to the Pilbara this winter and take the academics to see how a lot of this new technology is being applied — we will bring then bring that first-hand experience back to the classrooms. Having a board of directors that keeps me honest and is dominated by industry people, you can imagine that we’ve been hearing about this for a little while, and like all things in universities we’re a little slower to move, but at least now we are moving.”

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

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