Minerals Council of Australia's National Education Program

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Hearts and mines

Author: Miriam Lyons Date: 29/09/05

When Mitch Hooke, Chairman of the Minerals Council of Australia, addressed a Minerals Week function in May this year, he had a lot to celebrate. “This time last year, the Australian minerals industry was lamenting its circumstances. Prices for our products were depressed…and, rather poignantly, we were barely on the radar of politicians”. [1]

“What a difference a year makes. The industry is riding the wave of a resurgence in global commodity prices…And, in the words of some very senior bureaucrats in this town, the minerals industry is well and truly on the Canberra agenda.”

Despite the glowing forecasts, Australia’s resource industries are not without problems. Lack of key infrastructure has become apparent, and employers are now facing a severe shortage of skilled workers.

But Hooke is optimistic that more people will start looking at careers in mining. Interest in the sector is growing, he said, because the “industry’s commitment to its social and environmental responsibilities, and the extent of its technological sophistication is starting to resonate with young Australians.”

This is no accident. The Minerals Council of Australia – the Australian mining industry’s peak lobby group – has invested a great deal of time and money in its future workforce.

Even in a lean year, the MCA has an income of several million dollars, thanks to over 30 member companies who pay a small percentage of their profits as membership fees. For the last five years the MCA and its members have spent around $2 million dollars a year on the National Education Program (NEP), which targets both primary and secondary schools with the aim of, in Hooke’s words, “promoting greater understanding of, and interest in, the minerals industry among students and teachers.” Hooke estimates that in total, the MCA and its members spend over $10 million each year on education.

The NEP is delivered through the state and territory minerals councils, and includes funding for the development of multi-media educational resources, salaries for a full-time education professional in every state and territory, and for part-time presenters who deliver the program in schools. All of the school workshops are delivered free of charge.

According to the MCA’s annual report, around 119,000 upper primary students (or 22% of total enrolments) and 17,000 secondary students took part in their education programs last year. The NEP also conducted workshops for nearly 5000 teachers & trainee teachers, and took over 500 teachers & trainee teachers on site visits.

The NEP has no formal relationship with any of the state education departments, but NEP director Dianne Stewart says that recruiting staff with backgrounds in education “who have come out of the education sector at a pretty senior level” has contributed to the program’s success. “They’ve come with their credibility from the schools sector and they’ve got their networks.”

The NEP promotes the program to teachers online and by direct mail, but it also advertises in partnership with state and territory education departments, who promote the NEP’s workshops and presentations “through their networks, their journals and normal distribution methods into schools.”

“We’ve got tremendous support from state & territory education departments, they see us as one of the leading school industry partners in delivering education programs.”

Stewart says that the potential for such partnerships is growing. “All of our resource industries basically got sidelined out of the curriculum in schools over the last 20 years. Now in national curriculum frameworks, there is scope for an industry presence.”

In a review of another MCA program in 2003, one of the reasons given for the shortage of mining workers was that “the image amongst school students, their parents, and career advisers of the minerals industry and a career in it is one of low social status, a dying industry, crude, dirty and exploitive."

Although badged primarily as a way of recruiting and training a future workforce, the NEP, by combating students’ negative image of the industry, is also a useful part of the MCA’s public relations strategy.

Asked if the program was effective in overcoming negative perceptions of mining, Stewart said “Well that’s what we’re trying to do, and a lot of those perceptions are just born out of lack of exposure to it, and a lack of understanding of the reality of the modern industry, so we…provide the insight into the reality of the situation.”

She acknowledges that the program has its critics. “There’s always people who think that the industry is trying to push a line. Now that is something that we have not done right from day one. It has been a program built on its merits and teachers are the ones that, by word of mouth, spread the benefits of being involved in it”.

From a look through some of the resources available for free on the MCA’s website, it’s easy to see why they might be popular with teachers. “Oresome froth”, a whiz-bang multimedia learning tool, lets students become “virtual metallurgists”. “Paleotraveller” simulates a time-machine – complete with groovy sound effects – to let students find out how Australia’s mineral deposits were formed. “Metal Matters” helps students discover the mineral content of ordinary household objects, stresses the importance of recycling metals such as copper, and explains why new copper mines are still needed to meet rising demand.

Teachers can also order the “Rock and Rap” kit, where “Students can join the Rock 21 band by making up and recording their own rap songs”, a K-4 reading kit, “a set of five attractively illustrated booklets…to assist student literacy, while at the same time exposing children to aspects of the Australian Minerals Industry”, and “Our Land Our Future”, an “education kit for Indigenous students and communities”.

Corporate sponsorship of school materials can be a contentious issue, and the MCA appear have been careful to ensure that their program is as uncontroversial as possible. The materials are full of references to worker safety and environmental sustainability, and waste is acknowledged as an issue.

In a survey of NEP stakeholder organisations earlier this year, one of the questions was “Does your association have a position, policy or view on the use of resources or curriculum materials that have been prepared by commercial or industry interests?” [2]

One respondent, the Australian Institute of Mining & Metallurgy, answered that while school-industry collaboration is positive, “industry sponsored programs in the US have met with significant criticism for failing to present information objectively.” [3]

They went on to quote a US Consumers Union study which found that around 80 of sponsored education materials “contained biased or incomplete information, promoting a viewpoint that favors consumption of the sponsor's product or service or a position that favors the company or its economic agenda.”

Where the NEP is unbalanced, it is not due to the content itself – but rather what is omitted. A student learning about mining from the NEP alone would not come across any mention of the possibility of reducing demand, rather than reducing impact, or of mines that have been developed against the will of indigenous owners. Environmental damage and workplace accidents are only mentioned in the context of what the industry is doing to prevent them. Students using ‘Oresome Froth’ are tasked with optimising the metal extraction process to ‘increase profits and protect the environment’ – cases where those goals might conflict are not presented. [4]

Corporate PR in schools has grown into a billion-dollar industry in the US, where the largest producer of corporate-sponsored education materials claims to reach 52 million school children – almost every student in the country. [5]

Dr Sharon Beder, academic, author and longstanding critic of the PR industry, says that the trend is just starting to take off in Australia. “It’s one of those things that’s coming from the US, and is coming to Australia a bit more slowly.”

“I wrote an article in the Good Weekend about it. The response was industry people ringing up and asking how they could do it too.”

A few years ago Beder attended an Australian science teachers conference, and found chemical and mining companies displaying their educational resources in the foyer. “I spoke about the problem to the science teachers – some of them said to me ‘we use the material but we can be critical of it’”.

While some teachers treat industry-sponsored materials with caution, Beder says that in some cases “you almost have to be an expert to know that the stuff is biased.”

“For example the plastics industry materials emphasize the weight rather than the volume of waste – it doesn’t necessarily occur to you that this is a distortion.”

“Obviously the corporations think it has influence or they wouldn’t be spending so much money.”

Industry groups aren’t the only ones trying to get their messages across to students – many NGOs and environmental groups also produce educational materials. But Beder says that these other perspectives don’t have the resources to compete: “They have such minuscule budgets compared to the industry funded groups that it’s just a drop in the bucket”.

Diane Stewart says Beder’s concerns are not unusual. “It’s nothing new, we hear these comments all the time…but from our perspective, what we attempt to do is to provide as much balance as possible, and we suggest that other sources have to be referenced.”

“We’re just one of the many, and why wouldn’t we want to put out the defence of an industry that is a major contributor, a major industry in this country? We put out the facts about it, and the environmental record is there for everybody to access.”

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