I would like to commend Stan Sudol for making the case for creating a centralized educational centre for teaching and research related to exploration and mining [CMJ Headline News, July 23, 2007]. Hopefully his article will lead to a broader discussion of the future of minerals education in the province and in the country as a whole. Having spent the past 25 years in university geology and mining departments, I have often heard the lament that Canada does not have a world-class, globally recognized “School of Mines”. Mr. Sudol’s argument for government support in creating such an institute at Laurentian University has considerable merit but is ultimately flawed in several key areas.
First, the argument presented is based on the tacit assumption that “if you build it, they will come.” If Mr. Sudol has any formal education in the geology or mining disciplines, he must have had a very different experience than most of my colleagues and students. A large majority of these geologists, geological engineers and mining engineers who graduated from Canadian programs did not enter university with the intention of studying these disciplines. Common first year programs in engineering and science disciplines mean that most undergraduate students do not select their major until second year. By eliminating the opportunity for students to be exposed to these disciplines across a wider spectrum of universities, the total number of students entering these programs would be greatly curtailed. Most engineering and geology students who currently graduate from a cross-section of university programs in Ontario would not have gone to Laurentian to study these programs if they were not offered elsewhere. This has nothing to do with Southern Ontario snubs of Northern Ontario, and everything to do with the decision-making process of enrolling undergraduate students.
Second, Mr. Sudol states that between 1995 and 2002, mining engineering programs in all of Canada produced an average of only 109 undergraduates per year. This seems to suggest that something was not working in the university education system and that if there had been a centralized education hub that we would have graduated many more students. A quick check of statistics indicates that the mining industry was in a major downturn in the period 1995 to 2002. Based on NRCan statistics, the value of metallic mineral production in Canada declined by 25% in real terms during this interval. In addition, the number of employees in the production and concentration of minerals decreased by approximately 28% as there was a net closure of 37 mines in Canada over the same interval. The industry did not require 109 new mining engineers per year and most of the new graduates struggled to find employment related to their training. Market forces and the boom-and-bust nature of the mining industry must be taken into account when making major decisions regarding the education of future generations of engineers and geologists.
Third, while I am in agreement that the McGuinty government could make a greater commitment to mines research and education, the benefits (political and otherwise) of putting all his eggs in one basket are not clear. Imagine the reaction in Silicon Valley if [California governor] Arnold Schwarzenegger declared that Stanford University with its “renowned engineering faculty” was to be the only accredited school in California to teach the electrical and computer engineering programs needed to train its next generation of researchers and corporate leaders. Or imagine the reaction on Wall Street if the Harvard Business School was to be the only accredited business school in the U.S. Northeast. Harvard and Stanford did not become world-class institutions on the basis of preferential treatment from governments and legislated closure of competing programs. They earned their stripes through a commitment to consistently high standards of teaching and research. The geology and mining programs at Laurentian are growing in size, stature, and reputation. These are the qualities that will eventually make Laurentian a globally recognized university, not the forced expansion of their programs.
In conclusion, the creation of a centre of excellence in minerals education in research in Sudbury is already a logical and well supported notion across the province. I do not believe, however, that faculty members at Laurentian University would support the concept of exclusivity. In fact, Laurentian faculty have been at the forefront of promoting collaborative teaching and research across Ontario university programs in mining and geology. Like biodiversity, a mix of academic programs and approaches to the presentation and solving of minerals-related problems is the best way to ensure survival and evolution of the mining and geology disciplines. Maintaining key programs at several educational institutions spread across the million square kilometres of Ontario and working to co-ordinate their efforts is ultimately a much better long-term approach to minerals education than creating a single entity with a mandate to deliver all programs.
(Michael Doggett is the Stollery Professor of geological science, geological engineering and mining engineering at Queen’s University. His e-mail address is email@example.com).