Letter to the Editor: Mining's 'brain drain'

WE received a response to a story last week on a forecast skills shortage in geoscience roles from Curtin University’s Ian Fitzsimons.
Letter to the Editor: Mining's 'brain drain' Letter to the Editor: Mining's 'brain drain' Letter to the Editor: Mining's 'brain drain' Letter to the Editor: Mining's 'brain drain' Letter to the Editor: Mining's 'brain drain'

Staff reporter

The Australian Institute of Geoscientists raises an important point regarding university training and the future supply of skilled geoscience graduates (Industry group warns of mining ‘brain drain'- November 3, 2020). The AIG president, Andrew Waltho, is correct in highlighting the dilution of geoscience content in geology and earth science programs at many universities, as science degrees increasingly encourage students to study a breadth of subjects rather than the traditional deep dive into one particular discipline. This change has been driven by a progressive decline in the funding that universities receive per student, prompting them to seek efficiencies by introducing classes suitable for students across multiple degree programs and reducing the number of specialised classes that attract fewer enrolments.

There is much value in producing geoscience graduates with scientific breadth, but this comes at a cost of reduced exposure to key geoscientific concepts and approaches. This means that employers can no longer rely on graduates having the same skill set and practical experience they did in the past. Waltho warns that this could lead to two tiers of graduate, and in fact this is already the case. Current geology and earth science bachelor's degrees in Australia can contain anywhere between 25% and 80% dedicated geoscience content, with the differences not always apparent from the degree title.

We support AIG suggestions that Australia might benefit from a professional registration scheme like that in Canada that identifies core degree-level knowledge expectations for practising geoscientists while allowing some flexibility to acknowledge the needs of different geoscience fields (geology, geophysics, environmental geoscience etc.). This will provide a template to help industry identify fundamental knowledge gaps in potential employees, support those universities prepared to wear the extra cost of sustaining dedicated geoscience degrees, and encourage graduates from broader earth science programs to undertake targeted postgraduate and/or professional training prior to seeking employment or soon after entering the workforce. Without such a benchmark we run the risk that Australian universities will continue to cut costs by reducing dedicated discipline content of degree programs - indeed we note that the government's job-ready graduates package set to come into force from 2021 will decrease university funding per science student by over 16%, increasing the pressure on universities to find curriculum efficiencies.

It will be important that any geoscience knowledge benchmark is not viewed as an attack on those earth science programs that fail to meet to this threshold. Many universities lack the student demand to justify dedicated geoscience degrees, often because they are located in regions where geoscience career opportunities are perceived as limited. Nonetheless, in many parts of Australia these programs provide a critical pathway into geoscience careers if supplemented by additional training. They also allow graduates in other disciplines to pick up valuable understanding of earth science and the importance of sustainable extraction of geological resources in safeguarding our future.

Australia has a long and proud record of supplying highly-skilled and well-rounded geoscience graduates to the world, particularly in the field of mineral and energy resources, but this reputation is at risk unless we can agree on the core knowledge and skills that qualify someone as a professional geoscientist.

Ian Fitzsimons is Professor of Geology and Head of the School of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Curtin University. Curtin's BSc (Applied Geology) degree program in Perth and Kalgoorlie has been Australia's dominant provider of geoscience graduates over the past decade, with the bulk of these graduates gaining employment in the mineral exploration and mining sector.