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UK geotechnical masters are stll experiencing mixed fortunes, with funding shortfalls for some and new courses for others. Damon Schunmann reports

As with last year's geotechnical masters roundup, academia reports mixed signals with at least two courses having closed, others under threat, but several new appearances.

Natural Environment Research Council funding seems to be continuing after last year's review, but several academics are warning the geotechnical industry to start making a greater contribution if it wants the courses to continue.

'There is absolutely nothing coming from industry which is desperate for masters qualifications but not willing to help out, ' says University of Durham course director Charles Augarde.

'It's a pretty bleak outlook with more courses closing [although not at Durham] and once closed they are very hard to reopen as we have to justify it with real evidence to the university's administration.' Paula Carey, principal lecturer at the University of Greenwich, says it will not be running its two open courses, engineering geology and geomaterials and contaminated land remediation, due to lack of support.

Asked what should be done to encourage more students, Imperial College reader in engineering geology Michael de Freitas says: 'Simple - pay their fees and subsistence. This will increasingly fall to industry.

'The overuse of easily won work permits for those with skills we need, but who are outside the UK, has the potential to undermine the geotechnical teaching base in the UK and the supply line of UK applicants into the industry (GE August 2005).

Many in industry are tempted to import what they would otherwise have to train.' In answer to the same question, University of Reading senior lecturer in environmental geochemistry and mineralogy of soils Mark Hodson had nothing to suggest 'short of a radical overhaul of the UK school education system that somehow undervalues science and engineering'.

But lecturers remained convinced of courses' merit in the marketplace.

Bill Murphy from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Leeds says: 'With about a 90-100% employment record for graduates of the [university's] engineering geology course, industry still values the training we provide at masters level.' His words are echoed by Dei Huws from the School of Ocean Sciences at the University of Wales, Bangor, who says: 'Our main employer targets, the offshore geoservice companies, recognise they have a big skills shortfall and seem to be becoming more interested; though not to the point of direct funding as yet!' However industry does support courses at other institutions. Twelve companies contribute to an industrial bursary scheme at Imperial College that supports two or three students a year.

The University of Wales, Cardiff has fought the problem of decreasing funding by establishing a framework for paid industrial student placements during MSc project periods from May to September.

This provides some financial support while improving job prospects on graduation.

But the director of MSc courses in Soil Mechanics at Imperial, Matthew Coop, highlights the increasing burden on self-funding and sponsorship. 'The government's intention in the long term seems to be to shift funding on to students and companies, and to reduce direct support from EPSRC [Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council].' He says that unless UK civil ngineering responds with a larger input of funds, there will be very few UK MSc graduates. This, he believes, is because of debt burdens from first degrees or because of mortgages and families to support in the case of older candidates.

International applications were hit heavily this time around. 'It's been a bit of a disaster this year. We were expecting many more students [after 15 last year] but only two turned up, ' says Durham's Augarde. 'We get a lot of overseas applications that never turn up because they don't pay in advance.' On the same theme, de Freitas points out that, very unusually, the whole of this year's intake to his course was UK-based.

University of Birmingham MSc programme convenor Ian Jefferson offers a possible reason why overseas intake numbers dipped in 2005.

'This market was hit by several factors, but the July 7 bombings seem to have had a significant effect. A number of students pulled out at the last minute, ' he says.

More positively, several universities report encouraging overall increases including the Universities of Sheffield with a 30% rise to 21 and Reading with 14 new students, almost twice as many as the previous year.

New courses include Sheffield's contaminant hydrology and urban water engineering and management with the University of Wales, Cardiff now offering environmental hydrogeology.

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