Geoscience is the main discipline underpinning the current $100 billion resources boom and the economic growth flowing from it. The natural resources sector consistently generates 40 per cent of Australia’s export earnings, with major input from both the minerals and energy sectors. Geoscience is therefore a strategically vital discipline for Australia.
It will continue to perform an essential role in the ongoing discovery and extraction of minerals and energy resources for generations to come and, with emerging water and climate problems, will play an increasingly vital role in helping to solve our water problems.
Despite the current “boom” in the natural resources industry, university geoscience departments are suffering. In the last ten years at least ten departments have either closed or been downsized to the point of being ineffectual. Any further decline will impact significantly on Australia natural resources sector and eventually on the whole economy, as well as our international standing in the earth sciences.
Geosciences has traditionally been a boom-bust industry, with employment trends for professionals and new graduates following these trends. In the past the busts by and large had little impact on the health of geoscience academic departments because departments were allocated a base level of funding, to cover a fixed minimum number of established academic positions and some equipment infrastructure.
The adoption of budget models driven by a nearly linear relationship between student numbers and budget by most universities in the last 10 to 15 years, has had a huge and detrimental impact on the health of geoscience departments.
The effect of a downturn in enrolments in a small discipline such as geosciences can be catastrophic when the budget is driven mostly by student numbers. This led to the closure or amalgamation and downsizing of at least ten geoscience departments in the last ten years.
These include departments at LaTrobe, RMIT, Bendigo, Deakin and Flinders universities, the University of Canberra, University of New South Wales (once the largest department in Australia), University of New England, University of Technology Sydney and University of South Australia. Graduate numbers have halved in the last ten years, while allowing staff numbers to drop below a critical mass endangers the integrity and depth of degree major programs.
Because students are not aware of the existence of geoscience or what it entails before they go to university, they do not change preferences and switch to another university when geoscience is no longer offered at their institution of choice.
Now that the natural resources sector is booming, there is a huge undersupply of geoscience graduates because of the department closures - and some exorbitant salaries are being paid as a result. While numbers are increasing the loss of departments has already taken effect.
The current boom is predicted to last because of the likely demand for natural resources by countries like China and India. This is a healthy forecast for the surviving geoscience departments. Unfortunately, higher enrolment does not provide a major budgetary benefit to most departments because surviving departmental budgets have been subsidised for so long. Higher student numbers simply reduces the size of the subsidy without increasing the budget.
There is also a lack of understanding in industry about the demography of graduate catchments nationally, and the crucial role geoscience departments in the eastern states play. Despite most resources activity happening in the west, the largest graduate catchment is in the big cities of the eastern states.
In spite of having one of the most successful track records in Australia, the Monash School of Geosciences finds itself struggling financially under the current funding model and, at the larger scale, due to the long-term real decline in federal funding to tertiary education. Since the introduction of the linear student numbers funding model at Monash, our face-value budget has been consistently in deficit - as has the entire Faculty of Science’s budget. Both have been saved every year by a bottom line subsidy or transfer.
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