The minerals industry needs universities to help break down the silos between traditional professional disciplines.
Role of the AusIMM
The Australian minerals industry and the tertiary education sector have changed profoundly in the ten years since I had the honour of being President of the AusIMM, which is foremost a professional institute, rather than a scientific society, academy or industry association. This article reflects this perspective and represents my own opinions at this time and not necessarily those of organisations with which I am associated.
As a disclaimer, I do reserve the right to change my mind in the light of changed conditions – like John Maynard Keynes. The only deliberately dogmatic element in this discussion is that there is a pressing need for a fresh look at contemporary requirements, rather than traditional specialties and structures in training future minerals professionals and retraining those currently in the workforce.
The focus, therefore, is not so much on educating specialist scientists and researchers in the traditional disciplines that underwrite the minerals industry, although they too are vital for its success. Modern mining involves much more than the silos of geology, metallurgy and mining engineering.
Change is the only constant
Consider some of the more profound changes, for better and for worse that have impacted the minerals scene in the past decade.
In 2004, the industry was beginning to emerge from a long period of weak growth in demand for its products and languishing prices and was openly labelled as rust bucket and ‘had its day’. Our future was to be punctuated by ‘dot coms’ and other activities with no discernible competitive advantage for Australia.
We still had relatively cheap energy then and a belief in adding value by further processing mineral products. The perception, and less often the reality, was that the industry created only modest taxation revenue and jobs and had a large environmental footprint and poor social interactions. However, it was conceded that it was still somehow important and it did directly produce much of the country’s export income and employ people in the regions and the bush.
The exponential growth of China changed the game during the last decade and its extent caught the pundits by surprise, as did the intensity of materials utilisation in the development in the world’s most populous nation. Infrastructure is not installed by good intentions alone and we saw in China a supercharged version of the Japanese economic miracle of the 1960s, with demand for iron, coal, energy and base metals outstripping supply capacity. Exploration and capital development took off, the Australian dollar rose, and those exporters on board the Chinese locomotive powered through the global financial crisis (GFC) train wreck in Europe and the USA.
The urgent demand for Australian minerals professionals and operators created unrealistic employment conditions in this development phase, which by 2014 had predictably revealed its cyclical underbelly. Although production rates and real commodity prices for the most part remain at levels several multiples above those of a decade before, returns from the sector are now considered by some commentators to be sliding to a point that the national economy and budget integrity are threatened. The spectre of overcapacity in some commodities, notably iron ore, has been actively exhumed from its grave.
Energy costs in Australia have risen to an extent that makes value adding and manufacturing (and even agriculture) difficult rows to hoe. Our orebodies are getting harder to find, are deeper and present quality and processing challenges. However, Australian research and intellectual property development for the minerals and energy industry, including applied IT are generally considered the world’s best practice and a multi-billion dollar technology (METS) export industry has developed.
Overall, the industry in Australia has emerged over the decade as more respected for its contribution, but not more loved. The community focus on sustainability, social, environmental and indigenous aspects of the triple bottom line has accelerated and has been material in the industry genuinely improving its performances in these areas. However, growth in the unconventional gas sector, and in particular in coal seam gas activity, has spawned the latest outbreak of outrage for the resources area, albeit it is not ‘mining’ per se.
Unconventional petroleum exploration, drilling and extraction have already enabled very large increases in hydrocarbon recovery. This is especially evident in the case of ‘shale oil’ in the USA, where supplies have been freed up and prices reduced to an extent that has significantly changed international energy politics and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by substitution of gas for coal usage.
Although the technologies of fracture stimulation, or ‘fracking’ have been utilised extensively over a lengthy period, there is real concern on their application in south-eastern Australia, mainly from agricultural and pastoral interests.
Outrage factors and their management are well understood and deserve respect, but there is a generic problem if applications of innovative and more effective technologies are to be banned on the basis of any potential element of risk, no matter how small.
Although highly successful in achieving their stated objectives, genetically modified (GM) crops and vaccination face similar hurdles. A major element in resolving this impasse will be in building trust in the community, not just in corporations and government entities, but in their people, especially their professional practitioners, rather than in activists.
Time for a step change
These trends and different priorities that face modern minerals industry professionals, in government as well as in corporations, require different skills from the heavily discipline-based training of the past.
The new ‘toolbox’ includes at least a well-grounded awareness of IT systems for planning and modelling, GPS surveying techniques, water and energy management, mineral economics, communications, autonomous transport, media techniques, regulation, indigenous relationships, stakeholder rights, remote sensing interpretation, leaching technologies, fine particle behaviour, environmental risk management, remediation and safety in the bush, to name some examples.
These skills embody the ability to work flexibly with cross-disciplinary teams and for some this is an uncomfortable change in culture.
The boundaries between geologists, mining engineers, metallurgists, environmental scientists, etc will become even less distinct, but this does not imply it can all be done online from a comfortable capital city office or laboratory. The rocks, the mines and the stakeholders are still out there in the bush and theoretical knowledge must be melded with practical experience and mentoring.
Can the universities step up?
Can and will universities respond to the challenge of preparing the new generation of minerals professionals? Not all will want to, because they see their future, as well as their past in conscious specialisation and in more or less pure research – essentially in the education of scientists and academics, who in themselves will be valuable components for overall success in the minerals industry. Nonetheless, many graduates of such universities seek and find careers in the minerals industry and in government instrumentalities, so they will also need to meet this market for their students.
There is a blurred line of distinction between the more traditional universities and some younger universities, which consciously aim primarily at training work-ready professionals for industry. Some of these have historic links to the industry, like Curtin’s Kalgoorlie School of Mines. Courses at universities like these are gradually taking on more of the characteristics that I am advocating, but surely there is a case for a more radical rethink if we are to move from continuous improvement to a step change in training minerals professionals.
This can only be achieved by working with industry to determine what they want – and this is a two-way process. The Minerals Council through MTEC has considerable experience on the interface with universities and could be a valuable link in this redevelopment of courses, but we in the AusIMM and our committees also have an important and possibly leading role to play in the process of change.
The industry in Australia has emerged over the decade as more respected for its contribution, but not more loved
Broader-based courses provide a more effective foundation for choosing later specialisations, and also facilitate moves to other careers, including providing more flexibility to change directions or respond to the inevitable employment cycles. Mineral economics and ITC are likely to be more useful for most graduates in this respect than graptolite identification and pleochroism in pyroxenes.
An option for this approach is a restructured three-year general undergraduate degree in the minerals sector, with a fourth or Honours year on a specialisation, such as extractive chemical engineering, remote minerals sensing, autonomous mine operation or site remediation.
Collaboration between faculties and between different universities and science organisations, such as the CSIRO, would provide students with the best lecturers in their particular fields. Overseas students too would be more attracted to modules delivered by known experts.
An alternative and additional option lies in specialised post-graduate diplomas or degrees, but this path too would benefit from a more relevant base degree for the emerging minerals professional. Post-graduate courses are particularly attractive to professionals already active in the industry as part of their continuing education.
A critical element in this reform is the active participation of industry (and government instrumentalities) in providing and resourcing some forms of internships, which provide experience and mentoring and a mechanism for selecting the best employees to their companies.
Such cadetships and early career development schemes have foundered in the past on either of the twin rocks of corporate prosperity (no time) and adversity (no money) and greater resolve would be required in any new manifestation. Industry would find that a thoroughly inducted professional staff with broader skills could move more flexibly into different positions in their companies and into management responsibilities, which could assist in ‘coping with success’ in the next up cycle, with its inevitable pressure for more trained human resources.
A side benefit for companies and students comes from the early recognition that the minerals industry lifestyle is not for them, so these students can move on to more suitable careers.
Australian universities already have to deal with a financially challenging funding regime, underwritten by Commonwealth contribution (in part repayable by students through HECS) and fee income from overseas students.
Universities are also currently endeavouring to cope with some major uncertainties, based on the recent introduction of a demand-driven system and the proposed removal of government caps on course fees. As at December 2014, this means that universities would have to raise fees to cope with a proposed reduction of up to 20 per cent in the government revenue contribution. In one way or another, this will be passed on to students, who will be wary about taking on higher, but still unquantified costs for their courses.
Minerals-related courses are more expensive in general to deliver and are likely to suffer larger fee increases than most others. Field and site visits are becoming less frequent in many institutions, due to cost pressures, staff availability and health, safety and environment (HSE) exposures, and this could drive minerals courses more into the preserve of theory and indeed into the remoteness of massive open online courses (MOOCS). Of course, online delivery has its place, but it has limitations in the training of hands-on professionals.
It was disappointing that the ANU recently and very publically decided to sell a number of their investments in minerals and energy companies, deeming them ‘unethical.’ The intended thrust was apparently against coal usage and thence aimed at suppliers (rather than users), but perversely a number of reputable Australian companies with no coal operations were divested and others with coal interests retained. The resulting implication was that mining was per se unethical, although the methodology remains unclear.
Many universities, including ANU, educate students, who take up direct and indirect employment in the minerals and energy industries and carry out research that benefits those industries, which are vital to our economy. Those graduates and that research improve the competiveness and the social and environmental performance of the industry.
Despite this anomaly, the relationships between universities and the minerals industry is long-standing and mutually beneficial. There is, however, an urgent need for far greater collaboration if we are to achieve a real advance in the education and training of professionals and the development of new technologies in the Australian and global minerals industries.
Our parliamentary representatives are now facing the challenge of quickly facilitating the required reforms to university funding in a fair and effective way. Only with certainty established can academia, in concert with industry, take on the task of developing and implementing those innovative and integrated courses for minerals professionals that are required in the 21st century.