The WA School of Mines should include new disciplines and postgraduate degrees to insulate it from the cyclical resources economy, and help it become a global leader in its field, according to three former students who are now industry leaders.
As local educational institutions go, the WA School of Mines has a higher-than-average representation of 40under40 First Amongst Equals winners.
Industry heavyweights Bill Beament, the chief executive of Northern Star Resources, Battery Minerals boss David Flanagan, and Saracen Mineral Holdings managing director Raleigh Finlayson have big plans for the Kalgoorlie-headquartered school.
Founded in 1899, WASM became a branch of the WA Institute of Technology (now of Curtin University) in 1969, and was ranked the world’s second best educator in minerals and mining engineering by QS World University Rankings last year, lifting 17 places from its 2016 position.
Colorado School of Mines was in the top spot.
“We want to win the premiership going forward,” Mr Beament told Business News.
Curtin has done a great job to broaden the offering of the school, he said, which had grown from a pure focus on disciplines such as mining and metallurgical engineering and surveying.
Recent additions included oil and gas-related subjects such as petroleum engineering.
“Mining is not just dig, process, ship or sell, those days are long gone,” Mr Beament, a previous president of the WASM alumni, said.
“We’ve got the full spectrum of what we have to do in the community.”
A further step might be to look at areas such as environmental sciences and occupational health and safety, which were integral to the industry, he said.
Even topics such as corporate governance, public relations and social inclusion with a mining edge, would fit.
“They’re the things that need to get brought under the WASM banner,” Mr Beament said.
“That’s what we do, most of our job now is more of (those issues).”
He said he was pushing hard for a postgraduate, or Harvard-style, course structure.
“We’ve got a lot of the world’s best mining professionals, sitting here in Perth retired,” Mr Beament said.
“Like the Sam Walshs of Rio Tinto, they should be guest lecturers.
“Our chief financial officers, our heads of corporate governance, our company secretaries, want to go and do postgraduate (courses).”
Saracen’s Mr Finlayson, named this year’s First Amongst Equals, said an additional benefit of broadening the offering of the school was that it could have greater resilience to commodity cycles.
“What’s happening now is the absolute perfect storm,” Mr Finlayson, who is the current president of the alumni association, said.
“You’ve got industry picking up, battery metals going to dominate the industry, lithium is booming … all of a sudden there are no graduates coming out.
“We’re seeing scary numbers at the moment.
“Of 600 engineering students enrolled in Curtin University this year there are (very few) going into mining engineering (and very few) into metallurgy.
“These are diabolical numbers, but this happens every cycle.”
A bigger school would have more scale and would be able to offer better quality teaching too, he said.
Additionally, Mr Finlayson said there would need to be a constant focus on the curriculum to ensure it was changing to take advantage of the technological improvements in the world, including increased use of data.
Mr Flanagan, who is also chancellor of Murdoch University, said the state’s tertiary institutions, and the WASM in particular, would benefit greatly from leveraging Western Australia’s position as a mining leader.
“The thing which is unique, which is our competitive advantage, this is the home of resources in Australia,” he said.
“This is the highest concentration of mining intellectual property, venture capital intellectual property, corporate activity of any jurisdiction of the world.”
“If you look at these universities that last for 500 or 600 years, the key attribute (they) have is that they have achieved a level of relevance in those communities, the communities can’t imagine themselves doing anything without also supporting the institution,” he said.
That made them part of the fabric of society.
Mr Flanagan agreed there were many people in town with excellent capabilities who could be part of a postgraduate program.
He said he remembered students being supported to improve public speaking skills, and said in future, education on listing rules, costs and margins would be beneficial for students.
All three business leaders agreed the WASM was a unique environment for mining industry hopefuls to learn the ropes.
Mr Flanagan said one of the best things about the school was that students had always respected the lecturers.
“These lecturers were not pure academics,” he said.
“They academically could punch it with the best of the rest of them, but they were also employed in the mines.
“I felt as though … I was sitting in a class being educated by true leaders in their field.”
Mr Flanagan was the first of the three graduates to win the Business News 40under40 First Amongst Equals, in 2009, when he was chief of Atlas Iron.
He said one reason for the success of alumni was that they were passionate about supporting each other.
“People who go to the WA School of Mines … we go there because we want to learn how to find deposits and mine them,” Mr Flanagan said.
“And there’s something just so wonderful about going out, creating a project, searching for that treasure, working with a team of people to overcome all those challenges of nature and the market.
“Going to the (school), going to Kalgoorlie, getting your degree and dealing with the challenges of going through university and getting jobs creates friendships, experience and industry know-how, that (is rarely) seen anywhere else.”
Mr Beament, the 2013 First Amongst Equals, said the school was an intense, immersive experience, which was a key to getting the best out of graduates.
“If you can’t live and study in Kalgoorlie you won’t make it in the mining industry,” he said.
“There (are) no mines on St Georges Terrace.”
One memory he had of his time in Kalgoorlie was seeing workers get up at 4:30am in their high vis gear to head off for 12-hour shifts.
“They had to work hard, they had to get up, they had to be disciplined,” Mr Beament said.
“You’re seeing the activity, you’re hearing the blasts, you’re feeling the blasts from the super pit.
“You can’t understate that exposure … it bloods you from a young age.
“You don’t see a 793 haulpak going past you (in the city).”
He said many of the best miners were those born in the regions, where they learned to work hard and get their hands dirty.
“Mining gets in your blood really quickly and its changing every day,” Mr Beament said.
“You’re not just creating the same widget every day.
“You’re dealing with mother nature, dealing with an orebody mother nature has created, you’re building, you’re blowing it up, your environment is changing all the time.”
Mr Finlayson added that the Kalgoorlie experience helped people learn independence.
“One of the best bits of advice I could give a secondary student now is ‘take hold of that opportunity and learn your independence young’,” he said.
The school has produced other notable graduates, among them Ken Brinsden, who is currently managing director of Pilbara Minerals, and Neil Warburton, who is a director of nickel and gold miner Independence Group.