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RMIT Metallurgy graduates 50th reunion

Edward Dawson FAusIMM
ยท 1200 words, 5 min read

Recently six of the RMIT (now RMIT University) Fellowship Diploma of Metallurgy final year students of 1973 met in Melbourne for a 50-year reunion.

While some had maintained contact over the years, for others it was the first time the group had met since their final examinations.

L-R: Brian Scott, Ed Dawson, Russel Adams, Paul Russ, Geoff Simpson, Distinguished Professor Milan Brandt (RMIT University) and Brian Dixon (Absent: Ian Talbot).

The event commenced with a tour of the RMIT Department of Advance Manufacturing. The lathes and milling machines used in the Workshop Practice units of the 1970s era have been replaced with computer-controlled laser metal printing and other sophisticated fabrication equipment. Samples of printed titanium-tantalum alloy test samples being manufactured by a materials science PhD candidate were examined and discussed.

In the evening the celebrations continued with a restaurant dinner in the company of our life-partners. The celebration concluded with a BBQ the following day.

The 1973 graduates were the final candidates for the RMIT Fellowship Diploma of Metallurgy. This course was superseded by the four-year Degree in Applied Science, which commenced in 1972.

Although the Fellowship Diploma was only a three-year qualification, the program was intense and incorporated 12-14 units per semester. The first two years were common. The third year provided for Primary and Secondary specialisation.

The focus of RMIT in this era was to educate professionals to support the technical and operational needs of the Victorian mining and manufacturing industries. The core metallurgy units focused on steel, base metal and aluminium processing and alloys, welding, metal finishing, material destructive and non-destructive testing and corrosion. The Engineering Administration units provided a valuable introduction to workplace psychology and organisation. The third year Primary Metallurgy units provided an introduction to mineralogy, and the common mineral processing and extractive metallurgy processes, while the Secondary Metallurgy units focused on the science and engineering of metals for fabrication.

The lecturers were competent and performance standards demanding.  All the 1973 graduates considered the Fellowship Diploma to have provided a sound basis for subsequent industry and research careers. Notable achievements of the group include:

  • Two have earned PhDs in material science while working in the corrosion control and defence science sectors.
  • One established a successful manufacturing business then later completed a Law degree.  He is now a barrister in NSW.
  • One achieved success in technical roles in manufacturing in both Australia and the USA.
  • One has completed 50 years of continuous employment in mineral processing operations, engineering design, plant commissioning and consulting.
  • After a successful career in the Victorian manufacturing sector, one has established a successful retail food business.

All six graduates have achieved rewarding and challenging professional careers, financial security, enjoyed long-term enriching family relationships and contributed throughout their careers to the wealth of Australian society.

Material science at RMIT

RMIT undergraduate programs to support the Victorian and Australian mining industry were discontinued in the mid-1980s. An article in the AusIMM Bulletin of September 1986 (“Metallurgy at RMIT plans for metamorphosis”, AusIMM Bulletin, Vol 291, No 6, September 1986) outlined the considerations at that time including:

  • Direction by the Victorian Post Secondary Education Commission to discontinue the undergraduate course in Mining Engineering in 1974; thus severing the historical direct support by RMIT for the Victorian and Australian mining sector
  • Reducing real-dollar funding for the tertiary education and thus requirement for administrative efficiency and focus on course relevance.
  • Low student enrolments in the Batchelor of Metallurgical Engineering due in part to:
    • Poor image of mining companies created in the press.
    • Perception that mining did not present itself as a major employer of graduates in a high-tech field.
    • Closure of the Mining and Metallurgy faculty at Melbourne University.
  • A degree in Materials Science and Engineering better aligned with the anticipated future characteristics of the Victorian manufacturing sector.

RMIT direction

The discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851 was a pivotal event in Australia’s history resulting in the transition of the state from a penal/pastoral colony to the advanced society we now enjoy. However, the mining sector is no longer a significant employer or engine for future economic growth in Victoria. The transition of RMIT to the provision of undergraduate courses in advanced manufacturing is logical and supports the needs of the Victorian community.  The 1973 Metallurgy graduates appreciate this reality. All were impressed by what we observed during the tour of the RMIT Advanced Manufacturing facility.

The cessation of mining engineering, primary metallurgy and geology undergraduate programs at RMIT is regrettable but understandable, particularly in an environment when funds available to tertiary institutions have reduced in real terms, and prevailing student perceptions of the mining industry.

Mining professionals

In the 2022-23 fiscal year, mining contributed $455 billion in export revenue for Australia. The industry is crucial to the nation’s economy, government revenues and regional jobs. 

The international transition to renewable energy will require a major increase in the supply of lithium, copper, nickel, and other strategic metals. The rate of this transition to renewable energy will be limited by the supply of new mining projects, and the availability of mining, metallurgy, and geotechnical engineers to design and operate both existing and new mining operations. In the past, RMIT contributed to the pool of professionals. Many of these graduates have achieved significant success (see for example the AusIMM Bulletin from June 2023, which included a feature article on Steve Coughlan (RMIT graduate 1974), now Executive Chairman at Byrnecut Group.. 

The future demand for trade, technical, and professional labour to facilitate the expansion of the Australian mining industry has been the subject of significant discussion within the AusIMM. A recent report by the Future Workforce, Working Group outlined the likely future demand for mining professionals.

This document shows the number of mining engineering graduates from Australian universities reduced from 297 persons in 2013 to 104 persons in 2020. Depending on the assumptions regarding growth of the Australian mining industry, it is probable that the supply of graduates from Australian universities will be insufficient to meet industry demand. The likely shortfall would be met by migration, and diversification of recruitment specifications.

The 2022 and 2023 Thought Leadership Series future workforce webinars outlined the initiatives by AusIMM, government, mining companies, TAFE and universities to supply the future mining industry workforce. These webinars highlighted the increased complexity of mining operations due to factors including automation, robotics, remote operating centres, artificial intelligence, data analytics, transition to renewable energy and need to maintain a societal licence-to-operate. Graduates in the future will require a more diverse range of skills and capacity to work in multi-discipline teams than was the case when the 1973 graduates entered the industry!

The recent initiatives by AusIMM, government and mining companies to improve the public perception of the mining industry, improve the safety for women on remote mine sites and provide training for a more diverse workforce must be continued.

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