Yours, mine and ours - a partnership success story

16 Apr 2014

In 2012, Rio Tinto and UQ established a five-year, $2.5 million corporate education partnership that underpins the provision of 39 scholarships, two post-doctoral fellowships, the creation of a new bachelor's degree in geotechnical engineering, and initiatives to increase female and Indigenous engineering enrolments.

The partnership has a strong focus on integrated and practical learning, collaboration on curriculum, improving equity and access to university for a diverse range of students, and ultimately a sustainable talent pipeline for the resources sector.

One of the partnership’s outstanding success stories stems from the period of unparalleled growth in the mining and resources sector from 2002 to 2012, and the resulting imbalance in the supply and demand of skilled professionals. By 2011, graduates of mining engineering programs had overtaken graduate dentists as the best paid in the country. The flip side of this was that it became very difficult for universities to compete with industry to attract and retain suitably qualified academic staff. University teaching programs represent the first stage in the talent pipeline and in 2011, Professor Peter Knights, Head of Division of Mining Engineering with the School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering at UQ communicated these concerns to Rio Tinto.

“Universities were sourcing academic staff from overseas to overcome the Australian market conditions. Yet, foreign mining engineering academics were often at a disadvantage due to a lack of knowledge of Australian mining practices and conditions.

“We came up with the ‘grow your own’ strategy – with the idea of mentoring a number of talented, recent graduates into academic careers.

“Young academics often face hurdles to be promoted to continuing (tenured) appointments,” said Professor Knights.

Under the ‘grow-your-own’ strategy, two young mining engineering academics are being mentored towards becoming research active. Each academic also have an opportunity to spend time at an overseas research institute, or a Rio Tinto operational unit, to build up professional and international research networks.

One of the UQ’s first Fellow in the Future Mining Academic program is Dr Micah Nehring, a graduate of the UQ mining engineering program. Micah’s Doctoral thesis examined the use of smart algorithms to schedule underground mines, applicable to Rio Tinto operations such as the Argyle Diamond mine. Micah spent three months overseas working with colleagues at the Technical University of Lulea in Sweden. Here, he had the opportunity of visiting a number of Swedish mining operations, as well as collaborating to prepare a research proposal that was submitted to the European Union. Micah currently teaches the Mine Planning and Hardrock Mining courses at UQ.

“The Future Mining Academic Program has allowed me to network with renowned international researchers to work on projects relevant to the safe and efficient extraction of future deep deposits. I am able to commit to world-class research while sharing this new knowledge with the next generation of mining engineers,” said Dr Nehring.

Kaisa Freeman, Rio Tinto Education Partnership Program Lead, explains how such partnerships can maximise return on investment for the education provider and the sponsoring organisation.

“Partnerships like this one, implement Rio Tinto’s plans to increase opportunities for future generations, and also meet the strategic objectives of partnering organisations, which in this case is UQ.

“This global program is creating shared value by developing talent and capabilities, and enabling educators and Rio Tinto to foster partnerships that are mutually beneficial. It’s really a win-win situation for everyone involved.”