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Think twice

Despite the current downturn in student enrolment numbers, Davide Elmo urges universities to look at longer-term trends and think twice before closing geoscience programmes

30 May 2024
Back view of college students raising their arms at a class in a lecture hall

Enrolment in geology and Earth science programmes has steadily decreased over the past ten years. My analysis of publicly available enrolment data from 2010 until present suggests that this trend extends across the Global North (Fig. 1). However, the historical data also show that a similar decline has occurred twice in the past 50 years. In an analogy between enrolment data and Earth’s mass extinction events (the study of geology is not possible without considering geological time), we need to look at the historical patterns behind enrolment data and consider aspects that transcend national boundaries to understand what is happening presently in the academic world.

Figure 1: Enrolment numbers in geology and Earth science programmes for various countries in the Global North. EFTSL, Equivalent Full-Time Student Load. (Data from publicly available sources provided in further reading. © Davide Elmo)

The problem is certainly complex – various factors contribute to declining enrolment, such as educational emphasis, career perception, relevance, media representation, perceived difficulty, global issues, and information accessibility.

A lack of interest in geoscience may be systemic due to geology and Earth science programmes becoming less visible and accessible to students. Anecdotally, it is reasonable to state that students’ exposure to the geosciences in American and Canadian schools is dramatically low. Data from the UK suggest a more direct association – the numbers of students enrolling in geoscience programmes dropped dramatically following changes to the National Curriculum and the Education Reform Act of 1988, which gave schools greater independence, but reduced students’ exposure to geology earlier in the school curricula. Additionally, while geoscience courses in the Global North were previously highly sought by international students, the globalisation of education creates challenges in attracting international students who now have access to good universities in their own countries. Think for a moment about the size of universities in China – not just departments! – dedicated to the study of geology and Earth sciences.

Geology and Earth science hold the key to understanding how our planet has responded, is responding, and might respond to climate change

The perception of limited career opportunities in geology or the misconception that geology leads only to careers in traditional fields such as mining and oil exploration might deter some students. Concerns about Earth’s climate have given rise to climate anxiety, particularly among high school and university students, yet few are interested in studying the disciplines – geology and Earth science – that hold the key to understanding how our planet has responded, is responding, and might respond to climate change. Similarly, few individuals express an interest in studying the disciplines – engineering geology and geological engineering – that are key to engineering our response to significant climate events, or those disciplines that will provide the mineral resources required to reduce our carbon emissions.

Connecting geology to current global challenges like climate change and resource management could make the subject more appealing and pertinent to prospective students. However, these educational recruitment efforts will be to no avail if there are no sufficient (and rewarding) employment opportunities for new graduates because economics certainly plays a role. For example, when comparing US geoscience enrolment data to economic indicators such as private investment in the mineral resources industry (specifically the US oil and gas extraction and mining exploration budgets; EIA, 2015, Lui, 2021), a striking similarity emerges. Peaks in enrolment correspond (or slightly lag behind) peaks in extraction and exploration budgets, implying that the economics of the mining and oil and gas sectors drive the demand for geology and Earth science graduates.

Given rising demands for natural resources (due in part to the energy transition) and thus rising investment, enrolment cycles will continue. Assuming we are now nearing the end of Event 3 in figure 1, the question is not whether a new Event 4 will occur in the future but rather what its amplitude will be.

Notwithstanding the complexity of the problem, enrolment data should never become the deciding metric to establish the importance of an academic programme, and university administrators should not look at enrolment data as if they are a popularity contest. Closing geology and Earth science programmes is short-sighted. In an era dominated by social media, where everyone fixates on “likes” and “followers”, it is important to recognise that the significance of an academic subject may not always align with its popularity. Instead, we must prioritise knowledge that holds intrinsic value for the sustainable understanding and utilisation of our planet’s vital resources.

Dr Davide Elmo PhD, PEng, FGS

Professor (Rock Engineering), NBK Institute of Mining Engineering, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
BEng (Hons) Engineering Geology and Geotechnics, Portsmouth University
PhD Geomechanics, Exeter University

Further reading

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