Australian Geoscience Council Inc.

Submissions

Communications I Submissions

Copies of formal submissions made by the AGC on issues affecting geoscience professions in Australia can be obtained by clicking on the links below.

You can read the submission AGC has made supporting CRCs for Geoscience here.

The AGC’s submission to the Australian Tax Office on proposed changes to deductions for self-education expenses can be downloaded here as a pdf file.

AGC’s response to the National Curriculum Board Science Framing Paper can be viewed by clicking here for a copy in .PDF format.

Contact:
Dr Trevor Powell FTSE
President Australian Geoscience Council
15 Jaeger Circuit, Bruce ACT 2617
Ph. 02 62521428 Mob 0422 089 532
Email: tpowell@actewagl.net.au

Executive Summary

Geoscience is a discipline of national strategic importance in Australia. Despite the economic significance of the resources industries, Australian resource groups are suffering a major shortage of geoscience professionals. To a greater degree than most developed nations, Australia’s economy and ability to sustain society requires solutions that arise in the geosciences. There is now widespread concern within the geoscience community and major employer groups about the health of geoscience education in Australia and the demise of earth science educational opportunities, university earth science teaching departments and staffing levels. Our independent surveying shows that the higher educational system will not provide the appropriately trained geoscientists required by the economy and Australian society.

The Australian Geoscience Council (AGC) has determined that over the last 10 years, the number of geoscience departments in Australia’s universities and their staffing levels have decreased and the number of graduates has reduced, particularly at the Honours level where numbers have halved. The problem is structural, with teaching of geoscience being fundamentally uneconomic for most universities and dependent upon ongoing cross-subsidy within the universities – this position is unsustainable.

The AGC believes the Government must adopt a national strategic approach to ensure that Tertiary Teaching Capacity is maintained in important minority disciplines including geoscience. There is no existing organisation which is in a position to ensure that the national interest is maintained in the provision of Tertiary education in these minority disciplines. The AGC is concerned that there appears to be little understanding at the national level of the way the funding mechanism interacts with the dynamics of university funding to produce outcomes that are not in the national interest. The national interest requires teaching capacity to cover the various geoscience sub-disciplines to produce well rounded graduates at Honours level and a smaller number of graduates with more specialised training. The AGC believes that a minimum number of geoscience teaching centres with a critical mass of teaching expertise is required to deliver the number of graduates that the nation requires and that these centres need to be strategically located around the nation to ensure that all catchment areas for potential students are adequately covered.

Recommendation 1: The Australian Geoscience Council endorses the need for a national body and forum capable of undertaking the necessary strategic analysis of Tertiary education needs and the supply of graduates to industry at a national level

Recommendation 2: In its consideration of university funding, the Commonwealth Government should recognise and redress the Tertiary education needs in minority disciplines (including geoscience) and ensure in the negotiation of funding with universities that these needs are being met nationally.

Recommendation 3: In the funding of institutions in minority discipline areas, the Commonwealth Government should have regard to the need for a minimum number of teaching centres with sufficient critical mass of expertise to cover the various sub-disciplines and ensure the production of appropriately qualified graduates.

Recommendation 4: The Commonwealth Government should fund the development of collaborative educational capabilities using state of the art ICT systems, which would ensure wide delivery of key sub-discipline courses, with particular focus on sustaining the existence and the effectiveness of minority disciplines at regional tertiary institutions.

Recommendation 5: Funding arrangements should be changed to recognise the actual cost of teaching of different disciplines and the progressive increase in costs of teaching and teaching resources as students move through a course of study towards a major/Honours degree. We propose that the university funding should comprise a base level (block funding), determined by the real costs of course delivery, plus a per student rate based on EFTSL.

Recommendation 6: Undergraduate students in designated faculties or technologies, who are recipients of industry scholarships, should have their core-funding contribution to the university (Commonwealth contribution amount per EFTSL) paid at a higher level than that for non-scholarship students (amount to be set in consultation with the relevant parties).

Context for Submission

Introduction

The Australian Geoscience Council comprises the Presidents or CEOs of eight major geoscientific societies[1] in Australia with a total geoscience membership of ~9000 comprising industry, government and academic professionals in the fields of geology, geophysics, geochemistry, mineral and petroleum exploration, hydrogeology, environmental geoscience, engineering geology and geological hazards.

There is now widespread concern within the geoscience community and employer groups about the health of geoscience education in Australia and the demise of earth science educational opportunities, university earth science teaching departments and staffing levels[2] [3]. The concern is the ability of the higher educational system to provide the appropriately trained geoscientists required by the economy and Australian society. In the next few years with the growth of the resources industries, demand for water and the role of geoscience in managing the environment and mitigating natural hazards, this situation will rapidly reach a crisis point.

Of Australia’s total commodity export income of $150 billion forecast for 2007-2008, minerals and energy will account for 78 per cent. In the 2004/05 financial year the Australian and state and territory governments received taxes and royalties totaling $7.1 billion from the minerals sector and $8.1 billion from the oil and gas sector.

Yet in these wealth generating industries:

‘the oil and gas industry is currently experiencing shortages of professionals – particularly in the professions of petroleum engineering, geoscience and chemical engineering’[4]

and in respect of the mining industry[5]

The shortage of graduates from minerals related disciplines and lowering of standards for entry into the industry has serious ramifications for industry innovation. People who lack in depth technical knowledge are unlikely to develop new and more efficient ways to do things; they will merely perpetuate the processes into which they are inducted. Moreover, as there are fewer graduates who undertake postgraduate studies, there will be a smaller number of professionals available to the industry with advanced research skills’

A recent mining industry survey shows that short staffing and lack of professional experience are key issues.[6]

To a greater degree than most developed nations, Australia’s economy and ability to sustain society require solutions that arise in the geosciences. This is reflected in the critical role that the geosciences have to play in addressing important aspects of the National Research Priorities2:

  • developing deep earth resources on land and at sea;
  • mitigation of environmental impacts from resource industries;
  • water supply, quality, use and re-use; identifying causes and solutions to land degradation;
  • capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide;
  • managing and protecting our coastal and marine environments;
  • enhanced capacity in frontier technologies such as geo-informatics;
  • improved data management; and protection of critical infrastructure.

Although many of these issues are multidisciplinary in nature, the application of geoscience skills based on an understanding of earth processes and cycles is fundamental to their resolution and there is anticipated to be a significant upsurge in demands for these skills at a high level of application. The national research priorities must be supported by Australia’s national tertiary education priorities.

In response to these concerns, the Australian Geoscience Council (AGC) has undertaken a comprehensive survey of Australian universities to compile an Australian Geoscience Tertiary Education Profile 2007[7] and convened a National Summit on the Plight of University Geoscience Education and the Supply of Graduates, 27th September 2007 Canberra which was attended by some 50 university, professional society, industry and employer representatives. There was a consensus that unless a national approach is taken it is unlikely that the current situation will improve and there was a significant chance of further deterioration. The Australian Geoscience Council is actively engaged along with the national committees of our member societies, university staff and employer groups in determining ways in which the profession can mitigate this situation.

Under these circumstances, the AGC considers the Higher Education Review is timely. As a minority discipline in which a large annual supply of graduates is not required, the AGC has concluded that many of the issues that have led to the current plight of Tertiary geoscience education are systemic. They stem in substantial part from the current structural and funding arrangements of our current university system. AGC believes that geoscience is an exemplar of the issues faced by many minority disciplines under the current university funding formulae.

Tertiary Geoscience Education – its Status

The current situation has been summarized succinctly as follows[8].

“In 1990, 28 departments offered earth sciences around the country and it was a small, but mainstream science. By the end of the this year (2006) there will be five of the original geoscience/earth science departments left in Australia and it is a niche science albeit vital to the nationThe other departments have either closed or been forced into unions with biology, geography, physics, mathematics, or environmental science.This decade the number of honours graduates and students currently enrolled in honours courses has more than halved”

At the same time, although overall R&D; expenditure in geoscience has stayed relatively static, it has declined in its share of national R&D; effort. Whilst in the last decade overall expenditure in R&D; in the Higher Education and Government sectors has increased 22 %, the share of the total represented by Earth Science R&D; has fallen by 23.8% in the period and it is only one of two out of eleven disciplines to record a fall[9]

A decrease in Honours students must also result in a decrease in overall research capacity down the track as low Honours enrolments flow through into the number of PhD students and then ultimately to the number of research fellows and academics. This is a significant longer term crisis that the Tertiary geoscience sector is facing, the full effects of which are yet to be felt.

The explanation, which seems to have general consensus, has been stated by Webb[10]

“The current university funding model provides funds on a per-student basis, with the salaries of staff (academic, support and administrative) infrastructure and expendables (including field teaching) being paid from those funds. However with low student numbers such funds are inadequate to pay for the necessary infrastructure to support study in expensive and technologically sophisticated fields like geology, geophysics and petroleum engineering. ……………… Thus the fundamental problem: teaching areas that by their nature have low student numbers (such as geology) provide little money for the university. Thus with low student numbers, expensive science and engineering programs are not economically viable, and are thus vulnerable to closure.

Universities themselves are under no obligation to maintain teaching or research areas that are strategically critical to Australia’s economy.Instead, through economic rationalization, they have been forced to depend upon market forces that are dominated by student choices for their primary funding. Popular, well attended courses …….. (e.g. arts and business) are well-funded and help the university’s bottom lines, whereas expensive-to–teach, poorly attended courses (such as geoscience and engineering) are considered detriments to university finances.”

This is compounded by the relatively high expense of teaching geoscience because geoscience fieldwork and practical classes need low student/staff ratios due to the inherent variability and complexity of natural rock samples and outcrops. Whereas in the past domestic PhD students could be used to carry much of the practical demonstrating load, in the current climate this load must be picked up by academic staff. At the same time the Commonwealth funding per student has declined by about 4% each year relative to academic salary costs. The consequence of these two factors is that increasing student numbers in themselves will not address the long term sustainability issue, because beyond a certain point the extra income barely matches the increased cost of employing sufficient staff to teach them.

The 2007 AGC Summit and survey1 have confirmed that overall, geoscience continues to lose status and visibility through merger of departments and reduction in staffing levels although there is much variation from institution to institution. Some geoscience departments have stabilised or have slightly increased staffing levels. This situation is not unique to the geosciences and under current student funding formulae reflects the underlying unfavourable economics of maintaining teaching capacity in minority disciplines such as geoscience.

The problem is structural with too few students per teaching academic and would still be an issue if funding per student was raised to the highest funding cluster.

Differentiation in degree types has emerged where some universities have created ‘geoscience degrees’ from a blend of physical geography or environmental courses and traditional ‘solid earth science” courses whilst others have maintained a clear distinction between degree types. This can have significant ramifications for employability.

The AGC survey has demonstrated that nationally, student enrolments in geoscience have increased 20% over the last 5 years, but all have occurred in levels 1-3 with enrolments in Honours/level 4 declining a further 9% over the 50% drop that has occurred in the previous decade. Based on replacing the current cadre of professionals in AGC societies, it is estimated approximately 200 new graduates with honours or equivalent qualifications need to be produced each year. This compares with the 2007 output of 137 and does not have regard for any demographic issues. Retention of students, particularly Australians, into Honours and higher degree courses is a major problem and is another threat to the economic viability of many departments. This is currently exacerbated by the high salaries on offer from resource companies and is a primary cause of low retention rates in some universities, particularly in Western Australia.

Response to Questions posed in Review of Australian Higher Education Discussion Paper June 2008.

Meeting Labour Market Needs (Q.2-7)

Most ‘geoscience degrees’ are uneconomic on a purely teaching basis because of the combination of the numbers of students and student funding, together with the staffing levels required to deliver a well rounded Tertiary geoscience education – there are in effect too many small departments that lack critical mass in student numbers. However, geoscience departments are also typically dependent upon attracting students into geoscience from the cohort of science students undertaking introductory geoscience courses in Level 1 at university along with other science courses. This means that any reduction in university departments naturally leads to a reduction of the potential catchment. The heads of departments at Melbourne and Monash Universities confirm that the closure of geoscience teaching at LaTrobe University did not yield any increase in geoscience enrolments at either of their universities. If a geoscience department closes there is no increase in students wishing to undertake geoscience in nearby universities.

A logical innovation would be for universities in the same cities to share teaching resources enabling a comprehensive degree to be presented to all geoscience students in that region or for universities or allow students to move easily between universities to enable them to follow their preference for particular degree. However it is quite clear that the competition for students and the inadequacy of student funding stands in the way of cooperative activities between institutions and innovative ways of addressing fundamental structural problems.

Innovations in information and communication technology (ICT) have the potential to assist e-learning of specific components of minority discipline courses through inter-university collaboration. It is very regrettable that the current funding model acts as a deterrent to such collaboration, by delivering a strong incentive for selfish containment of EFTSL-paying numbers. Economically important specialist sub-disciplines such as geophysics, hydrogeology and metallurgy are not taught in many universities, due to the inability of institutions to support educators in such specific fields. However, highly skilled educators are in fact employed at other universities. The sharing of educational capabilities is a very obvious mechanism for upgrading the education of Australian graduates. This may be achieved readily by the collaborative delivery of courses using modern ICT systems, except that the current tertiary funding arrangements preclude such collaboration. It is recommended that the Federal Government takes proactive measures to encourage such ICT collaborative teaching, building on existing multi campus lecture capabilities such as the Access Grid technology used in the Monash University Faculty of Science.

It is ironic that at the very time when the demand for professionals in the resources industry has been growing steadily for some years that the number of geoscience departments capable of providing geoscience graduates with a level of ‘skills expected of graduates’ is at it lowest level for 20 years. This stems from the absence of any strategy to ensure that needs of major national industries are met. The AGC strongly supports the need for a national body to take a strategic perspective of these issues and to provide a national forum through which these issues can be raised and addressed.

Clearly in the case of the resources industry, individual state governments can and do support their local tertiary institutions in the resources related education sector (most notably South Australia and Western Australia). However experience has shown that without a national strategy that engages Tertiary institutions in the major population centres, it is not possible to meet the ongoing demand for graduates.

The experience in geoscience is that there is no discernible mechanism for aligning supply and demand for graduates – typically the production of graduates has been out of synchronization with industry needs. However it is true that the industry sends mixed signals – the well known cyclicity of the resources industry with its accompanying ups and downs in recruitment policies accompanied, particularly in the nineties, by its ‘sunset or dirty industry’ image has clearly played its part in reducing the attractiveness of geoscience both to institutions and potential students. This is of course superimposed upon the overall problem of attracting students into science in general. It is only recently that student numbers are increasing in response to the prolonged resources boom.

However it is also true to say that in amalgamating departments some universities have not had regard to the ‘skills expected of graduates’. As geoscience academic staff numbers have contracted, course structures in some amalgamated departments appear to have more concern for staff interests and the availability of staff rather than equipping students with the core skills required for a career in geoscience. This has prompted the Minerals Council of Australia to fund positions at particular universities to support courses at Honours and MSc level in minerals geoscience, and although valuable, this does not address the underlying fundamental issue of viability of departments. Similarly Geoscience Australia has introduced a Cadetship Scheme which pays a limited number of students to undertake degrees with particular course profiles that would suit them for future employment at Geoscience Australia. Coal Geology has all but disappeared as a teaching and research subject in Australian universities yet coal is one of Australia’s largest exports. Industry representatives have commenced direct participation in coal geoscience teaching in Queensland. Because of the diminished university capability in hydrogeology and the supply of hydrogeologists, the Australian Water Commission has recently funded jointly with the ARC a $30million centre for training and research in hydrogeology – this is likely to involve a number of universities. These examples jointly send a powerful signal that, as a system, Tertiary geoscience capability and education is not meeting national needs. These initiatives, however, are adhoc and do not address the underlying strategic issue as to the viability of geoscience departments.

There is no doubt that the recent increase in the demand for geoscience graduates and the resources boom is changing the situation in the Tertiary geoscience education system, which over the last 10 years has undergone significant contraction and hollowing out of capability. The high salaries being paid to meet surging industry needs means that a very high proportion of graduates are leaving universities after 3 years and the number of students acquiring more in depth technical training through honours and higher degrees is shrinking. This is setting up a scenario for a significant demand for further education and training down the track as employees seek to upgrade their knowledge and capability to progress in their career. At the same time the teaching capability in universities, particularly in key specialist applied areas, is diminishing.

There will be an inevitable need to engage industry professionals in teaching in order to upgrade skills through appropriate mechanisms, and this is already starting to occur. The development of formal mechanisms whereby ‘base degrees’ can be upgraded and recognition can be received for these enhancements will be fundamental to maintaining a skilled work force in the geosciences into the future.

Summary: The AGC believes the Government must adopt a national strategic approach to ensure that Tertiary Teaching Capacity is maintained in important minority disciplines (including geoscience). There is no existing organisation which is in a position to ensure that the national interest is maintained in the provision of Tertiary education in minority disciplines. The AGC is concerned that there appears to be little understanding at the national level of the way the funding mechanism interacts with the dynamics of university funding to produce outcomes that are clearly not in the national interest.

Specifically, the national interest requires teaching capacity to cover the various sub-disciplines to produce well rounded graduates at Honours level and a smaller number of graduates with specialist training eg geophysics, hydrogeology. The AGC believes that a minimum number of geoscience teaching centres (the AGC continues to assess the possible worst case minimum scenario) with a critical mass of teaching expertise is required to deliver the number of graduates that the nation requires and that these centres need to be strategically located around the nation to ensure that all catchment areas for potential students are adequately covered. In addition further geoscience teaching capability is required to ensure adequate educational opportunities in the strategically important disciplines of earth sciences are available nationally given that earth sciences has little or no profile or role in the secondary education system in Australia.

Recommendation 1: The Australian Geoscience Council endorses the need for a national body and forum capable of undertaking the necessary strategic analysis of Tertiary education needs and the supply of graduates to industry at a national level

Recommendation 2: In its consideration of university funding, the Commonwealth Government should recognise and redress the Tertiary education needs in minority disciplines (including geoscience) and ensure in the negotiation of funding with universities that these needs are being met nationally.

Recommendation 3: In funding of institutions in minority discipline areas, the Commonwealth Government should ensure there exists a minimum number of teaching centres with sufficient critical mass of expertise to cover the various sub-disciplines and ensure the production of appropriately qualified graduates.

Recommendation 4: The Commonwealth Government should fund the development of collaborative educational capabilities using state of the art ICT systems, which would ensure wide delivery of key sub-discipline courses, with particular focus on sustaining the existence and the effectiveness of minority disciplines at regional tertiary institutions.

Resourcing the System Q28-30

The current plight of Australia’s geoscience departments is caused by the current funding models. Disciplines with smaller student numbers are uneconomic. In the case of geoscience departments, this is compounded by the relatively high expense of teaching geoscience which is a very practical, observation-based science.

The present arrangements fund places at a constant amount per annum for an individual discipline cluster throughout a course. In the light of the experience in geosciences, this discriminates against low volume courses with high resourcing complexity in terms of teaching specialities, laboratories and fieldwork requirements. The AGC believes this is undesirable from a national perspective and as a result there is a lack of transparency in how Commonwealth funding affects national outcomes. The AGC believes funding arrangements should reflect the actual cost of units of study in successive years of progression towards a major/Honours degree. In combination with the national strategic approach outlined above, the AGC believes outcomes will be more predictable and more in line with national needs for graduates in minority disciplines such as geoscience.

Recommendation 5: Funding arrangements should be changed to recognise the actual cost of teaching of different disciplines and also the progressive increase in costs of teaching and teaching resources as students move through a course of study towards a major/honours degree. We propose that the university funding should comprise a base level (block funding) determined by the real costs of course delivery, plus a per student rate based on EFTSL.

The AGC supports the proposal made by the Australian Society of Exploration Geophysicists (ASEG) in that body’s submission to this inquiry, to provide additional financial support to undergraduate students in designated faculties or technologies, who are recipients of industry scholarships. The intent is that such students have their core-funding contribution to the university (Commonwealth contribution amount per EFTSU) paid at a higher level than that for non-scholarship students.

We agree that the funding proposal is generic, requiring only evidence of a scholarship (probably at or exceeding some defined level of subsistence support) in order for the higher Commonwealth contribution to apply, and note that the principle already exists, at least in higher degree enrolments where foreign students holding fee waivers are weighted differently to fee-paying students in counting Commonwealth contribution The proposal is market driven as industry scholarships will only exist in the areas of need, and it provides further incentive for industry participation. It will support small student numbers – universities will be better able to offer specialist courses if a significant number of students in the courses are of increased value in Commonwealth contribution.

The ASEG comments that there may be a need to apply some filter to restrict eligibility to broad professional or technological areas, which is achievable simply by the use of the existing category of National Priorities which is used to apply an adjustment to Student Contribution amounts. Alternatively, the filter could be based on “faculty designation” e.g. science and engineering faculties. Or it might be linked to existing tables of professional areas of demand as established for weighting immigration applications.

We concur that a key feature of this proposal is that it not only recognises the concept of National Priority (already a part of the existing funding formula for university teaching), but it also recognises the need and provides a generic mechanism for providing the necessary funding to university teaching departments, to enable specialist courses with low numbers but high importance to the national interest to be offered.

Recommendation 6: Undergraduate students in designated faculties or technologies, who are recipients of industry scholarships, should have their core-funding contribution to the university (Commonwealth contribution amount per EFTSL) paid at a higher level than that for non-scholarship students (amount to be set in consultation with the relevant parties).

[1] Association of Applied Geochemists, Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy; Australian Geoscience Information Association; Australian Institute of Geoscientists, Australian Society of Exploration Geophysicists, Geological Society of Australia, International Association of Hydrologists (Australian Chapter), Petroleum Exploration Society of Australia.

[2] Mineral Council of Australia, Back from the Brink: Reshaping Minerals Tertiary Education, MCA National Tertiary Education Taskforce, MCA, Canberra 1998.

[3] National Committee for Earth Sciences, National Strategic Plan for the Geosciences, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra 2003.

[4] APPEA, 2007, Platform for Prosperity, Strategic Leaders Report to the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, GPO Box 2201 Canberra ACT 2601 , April 2007.

[5] AusIMM, 2006, Pre-budget submission 2007-2008, The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, PO Box 660 Carlton South, Victoria 3053.

[6] AusIMM, 2007, Position paper to the National Engineering, Science & Technology Skills Summit, Parliament House, Canberra 19 June 2007.

[7] Australian Geoscience Council, 2007, Australian Geoscience Tertiary Education Profile 2007, Australian Geoscience Council, Canberra.

[8] Hall, M & Hill K. Time to invest in earth sciences. PESA News Oct/Nov 2006, Petroleum Exploration Society of Australia Ltd, 118-119

[9] Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, Is this what you had in mind? Science and the changing profile of R&D; expenditure. FASTS Discussion Paper 18 June 2007 Parts 1& 2. www.fasts.org.

[10] Webb, Ge.E. Some thoughts on Australian universities and the petroleum industry in 2006. PESA News Aug/Sept 2006, Petroleum Exploration Society of Australia Ltd, 38-39.

PreBudget Submission January 2008

AGC’s 2008 prebudget submission in PDF format can be viewed by clicking here.

This submission was prepared February 2007. Click here for a copy in PDF format

AGC Submission to the Inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Science and Innovation into Australian Technological Innovation and Pathways to Commercialisation

This submission was prepared for the Inquiry by AGC members during May 2005. Click here for a copy in .PDF-format.

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