21/08/2007 - 22:00

Unis respond to change

21/08/2007 - 22:00

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Booming markets have all sorts of effects on an economy.

Booming markets have all sorts of effects on an economy.

What we have seen over the past two years in the stock markets with respect to minerals and energy stocks has been building for a lot longer than that.

The skills shortage in engineering has been at the forefront of leading industry minds for about four years.

As that sector started to grapple with getting people in the short-term, many woke up to the fact that this could be a longer term issue.

Enter the universities, the core supplier of skilled people in the sectors currently enjoying once in a lifetime growth.

They have been impacted significantly by this event.

Firstly, areas such as engineering, applied sciences and specialist areas such as geology have become a lot more attractive to students because of the abundance of jobs and the incomes they can earn.

In some cases, students can see not just a potential job at the end of their studies but they may well be able to start a business in their own right.

Secondly, the resources companies have realised how much it is in their own interest to encourage study and research in their sector through funding and support.

It’s the kind of corporate self interest that has been slow to develop beyond a few generic areas like law and accounting.

At the same time, there’s been a massive change in government funding of universities, with a federal push towards specialisation rather than general education. After a tumultuous period, universities have started to adjust, notably thrusting into leadership those who are better suited to a more corporate world.

In Western Australia, these forces have all combined to produce some interesting results. There now appears to be a real push for local tertiary providers to mark their turf in the resources sector.

Earlier this year, Curtin University revealed it was developing a $100 million resources and chemistry precinct, which would locate a significant research capacity adjacent to CSIRO Mineral’s expanded operations. 

BHP Billiton kicked in $5 million over five years.

The university plans to connect this by giving its new head of the Kalgoorlie-based School of Mines, Professor Paul Dunn, who is currently at a Canadian university, an overview role with the precinct.

Across the river, the University of Western Australia has not being lying dormant either.

Two weeks ago, UWA announced the creation of a new role, promoting and coordinating its existing resources-related education and research.

Given a wide brief in this new role is Tim Shanahan, who is quitting the high profile position of chief executive of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy in WA to become UWA’s director (Energy and Minerals Initiative).

Interestingly, Mr Shanahan was an advocate of a resources university for WA and pushed for a resources precinct in the city.

It is also establishing a new centre for petroleum geoscience and collaborating with Curtin and CSIRO on the WA Energy Research Alliance.

UWA’s connections with the resources sector go beyond its science and engineering courses. It is putting a huge effort into developing its business school, including the construction of new premises, for which it has already raised about $18 million of a $25 million target.

Its business school board has the likes of current Woodside Petroleum Ltd CEO Don Voelte, his predecessor John Akehurst and BHP Billiton stainless steel materials president Jimmy Wilson around the table.

UWA vice-chancellor Professor Alan Robson, who is also taking on the prestigious chair of the Group of Eight research universities, is clearly embracing the forces of change.

Professor Robson has made minerals and energy a key focus for UWA and wants Mr Shanahan to marry expertise across disciplines, as well as develop further links into industry.

It’s all part of a push for UWA to become a top 50 university in the world. Arguably, with government support fading into the background, it will take the kind of corporate muscle the resources sector has, to fund such ambitions.

Professor Robson knows that the corporate dollar is fickle – in the sense that it is not altruistic, it will go where it can get the job done.

But in the minerals and energy sectors, the door is still open to establish a global presence, especially as rising demand and harder to reach resources make the know-how of extraction even more valuable.

Internationally, few universities have big reputations in this sector. Houston, Aberdeen and Colorado spring to mind, while in Australia the University of Queensland and University of New South Wales are local leaders.

Curtin vice-chancellor Jeanette Hacket believes Curtin has an established track record in this field, but acknowledges that the true competition is now international and all tertiary institutions have to focus on their strengths to succeed at that level.

“There is no point in simply being competitive at a suburban or even state level, we need to be competitive globally,” Professor Hacket said.

She and her counterpart at UWA both believe that the resources thrust is very much part of the community service that higher education providers must provide.

In the end, the strategy is similar to any business, you have to provide the service that the community wants to survive and prosper.

One thing to watch will be how these two major players in WA – UWA being the traditional sandstone educator, Curtin having the applied bent based on its rise from a technology institute to fully fledged university – carve out this space in WA, where the minerals and energy sectors uniquely co-exist.

Professor Robson claims it is not a battleground.

“It is not a competition between us and Curtin,” he said.

“You have to know when to compete and when to collaborate.”

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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