• Search
  • LinkedIn
  • Instagram

Global geoscience enrolment

Phil Anderson reports on the decline of geology student enrolment in the developed world – and the stark contrast with Latin America

Words by Phil Anderson
1 December 2023

The University of Chile is seeing high numbers of students taking its geology degrees (Image: Sisib Universidad de Chile, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

There is a severe decline in the number of UK teenagers choosing to study geology. The latest statistics from the UK’s Earth Science Teachers’ Association (ESTA, www.earth-science-teachers.uk; Fig. 1) indicate that in 2023 the number of secondary school students choosing A-level Geology in their final year was 935, less than half the number in 2015, which was the last time interest in geology peaked. The trend has naturally spilled over into university recruitment, and in 2020 University Geoscience UK (UGUK; www.earth-science.org.uk) reported that the number of geology students at UK universities was down 43% compared to 2014. 

This is a trend seen across the developed world. In the US, undergraduate geoscience enrolment peaked at around 32,000 students in 2015, but by 2021 had declined to just over 20,000 (Fig. 2). And in Canada, BSc enrolments in geology, geophysics and geological engineering practically halved to 2,400 in 2021 from around 4,200 in 2014. 

According to Associate Professor Shaun Barker, Director of the Mineral Deposit Research Unit (MDRU) at the University
of British Columbia, Canada, the trend even extends to countries such as Italy. Shaun finds the issue particularly concerning because ‘Baby Boomers’ are now retiring from the industry – and more so following the Covid pandemic – just as the world is seeing an upswing of interest in minerals and critical mineral supply. 

Figure 2: Graduate and post-graduate geoscience student enrolment in the US (1955–2021). Geoscience enrolment numbers in the US have collapsed in recent years. (© 2022 American Geosciences Institute and used with their permission)

Massive deficit

“We have a massive deficit of trained people coming into the industry, and many research groups around the world – MDRU included – are struggling to recruit well-qualified students, postdocs and research staff. Our main issue used to be raising enough research funding to do what we’d like to do, but now we’re entering an era where we’re going to be human resource-constrained,” Shaun explains.

Australia has projected the workforce it will require for the minerals industry by 2030, but at the current rate it will have about 50% of the graduates that will be needed, Shaun believes.

Not only is the lack of students a problem, he adds, but with two years of Covid, there is a cohort of graduates who missed out on field training, which was already scarce due to the long-standing funding restraints that most geology departments have had to struggle with over the years.

Shaun sees no quick fix, warning that governments and industry must be prepared for a long-term investment to address this. “We’ve probably had under-investment for a generation, and we’re likely to need investment for a whole generation to help fix things again.”

Articles in the 2019 edition of Geoscientist (Geoscientist 29(8), 2019), which was dedicated to this topic, suggest that the decline in student uptake is probably caused by a combination of issues, including a lack of funding, dearth of teachers and an education system that views geology as an afterthought – something to be tagged on to geography, chemistry, or physics courses, and inconsistently at that. 

And while the mining industry does have a poor track record in terms of pollution and environmental damage, young people may take this record a step further by associating it with the oil and gas industries, which arguably have more of a direct impact on global warming. Barker thinks this latter aspect has worsened, saying surveys have since shown that students look even less favourably upon the mining sector than the oil and gas industries.

UK strategies

In the UK, ESTA, UGUK and the Geological Society have stepped up efforts to work together and, with other organisations, raise the profile of geology and highlight geoscientific careers. Efforts include greater engagement with government departments to emphasise the importance of the geosciences for achieving net-zero targets, the provision of greater support for the education community, particularly teachers of STEM subjects, and initiatives such as GeoWeek and Girls Into Geoscience.

Efforts include greater engagement with government departments to emphasise the importance of the geosciences for achieving net-zero targets

These efforts gave rise to the TEACH EARTH website (www.earth-science.org.uk/teach-earth) providing resources for Earth science teachers, as well as the launch of the Geoscience Degree Apprenticeship programme, which aims to provide an alternative route to obtaining a geoscience degree, while also enabling greater diversity in the talent pool (see pages 30 and 34). 

Pete Loader, who is a member of the Geological Society’s Education Committee, also notes that the European Geosciences Union is writing a manifesto “which they hope many Earth science associations and societies across Europe and the UK will sign up to, and which may have a political influence on those who can change things”. 

Dr Tom Argles, Director of Teaching for the School of Environment at the Open University and ESTA’s higher education coordinator, stresses that almost all these initiatives are conceived, planned, organised and driven forward by volunteers who have full-time jobs that leave little time for these activities, but they keep on contributing because they are passionate about the Earth science community. While the sheer number of organisations involved can lead to a lack of coordination and coherence, Tom believes that these initiatives are now starting to gain traction by centralising their efforts. 

To the rescue?

Interestingly, Latin America is currently being spared from the lack of geology students seen in many developed nations. At Universidad de Chile, geology is still attracting interest. According to Brian Townley, Associate Professor of Geology at the university, they are driven initially by a romantic ideal of learning about the natural world – drawn to aspects such as volcanology, geological risk and danger, hydrogeology, geological engineering, regional geology, structural geology, stratigraphy and palaeontology, and sedimentology. First-year students tend to be staunchly pro-environment and have little intention of contributing to the industrial side.

However, by year four they are more aware that the mining sector is crucial to the green energy transition, they have learned that the industry faces the challenge of operating sustainably and that they, as geologists, can be a key factor in improving the sector. They also learn that there are better opportunities and salaries associated with the mining industry than they believed.

Brian thinks mining engineering courses have probably received more funding as a result of the energy transition, and while these courses are perhaps not as attractive to first-year students as pure geology, in later years they can see there is an environmental aspect, such as the need to manage tailings storage correctly.

Professor Martin Reich, Director of the Geology Department at Universidad de Chile, adds that the mining industry is much more prominent in Chile’s economy than in the developed jurisdictions, with a thriving offering of pre-degree courses as well as degrees, so school leavers tend to be aware of commodity cycles and the prospects for good salaries. 

Chile has gone from having three universities offering geology courses in 2010 to at least seven offering courses today. This has led to a surplus of geologists in the market, with a pool of around 3,200 graduate geologists today compared to 1,200 in 2010.

Brian believes the situation is similar in Peru and Ecuador, while Martin thinks geologists from Argentina and Brazil have as good a reputation as those from Chile. Both Brian and Martin have seen some of their former students recruited for posts in Canada, the US, Australia and African nations. This results from a combination of initiative on the part of multinational companies, and graduates being open to work outside Chile – particularly as the surplus of geologists has reduced salaries locally. The two academics therefore agree that Latin America is increasingly recognised as an important source of geological talent to address the deficit in developed western nations. 


Phil Anderson

Writer and Editor at Chile Explore Group, Chile

This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in the Chile Explore Report. It is reproduced with kind permission from Chile Explore Group.

Further reading

Related articles