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Grounds for optimism


Masters courses in geotechnics and engineering geology related subjects appear to be in unexpectedly good shape in 2004. Paul Wheeler reports.

Last year there was widespread desperation over low levels of funding for masters courses in geotechnics, engineering geology and related subjects.

There were also concerns over falling applicant numbers, particularly among UK students.

But this year, of the 13 courses that provided student numbers, eight report an increase, three are static and only two indicate a fall.

And although nobody has spelt it out, the proportion of UK students has grown significantly (see table).

In the responses to GE's annual poll on the state of the UK masters courses, the indignation of 2003 has disappeared.

Last year's survey identified 250 masters students, 48% of whom were from the UK. This year there are 300 students, 61% from the UK. This statistic is crude, in that courses at Manchester, Glasgow and Durham reporting very low UK student numbers last year have not contributed to the statistics this year (but of course that means the actual growth in total student numbers is greater).

Additionally, the student count does not differentiate between part-time and full-time students.

Nevertheless the trend is definitely up.

The University of Dundee has launched a course on geoenvironmental engineering and management, which, explains course leader Tim Newson, can be taken as a one-year full-time or two- to three-year part-time course.

After a year's break, Nottingham University has relaunched its course in contaminated land management: assessment, investigation and remediation. Dr Paul Nathanail believes the course's new structure will increase its appeal to industry.

'Revamping the course was in response to consultancies being reluctant to release staff for the one week each month to attend the university. We have reduced this to eight weeks over two years with an element of distance learning, ' he explains.

The University of Durham, which has one of the longest established engineering geology courses, has restructured its masters programme and now includes courses in engineering geology, geotechnics and geo-environmental engineering under what it calls the 'geo engineering umbrella'.

Leeds University is about to launch a hydrogeology course - contact Dr Jared West, jared@earth. leeds. ac. uk, for more details.

There has been only one casualty in the past year. The University of Reading has dropped its course on hydrogeology and groundwater quality, principally because the course leader left and has not been replaced. However it continues to offer environmentally focused courses on soil science and environmental pollution.

The University of Greenwich is struggling to make its short course structure work. Last year it reorganised its masters programme into a series of intensive week-long modules that could be taken separately as CPD courses, or as part of a masters degree.

Course leader Dr Paula Carey says there is 'great reluctance for employers to pay for the short courses even at £350 for a week'.

'The problem seems to be in allowing staff time off to attend; if recruitment does not improve we will have to stop the short courses, ' she says.

The only other university to experience a significant drop in student numbers is Portsmouth, although its course leader David Fall thinks it may be a blip, 'as applications for next year are back at normal levels'.

Why do a masters course?

As part of GE's questionnaire, course leaders were asked: 'Why are masters courses important in the general education of ground engineering professionals and what is wrong with taking graduates and giving them on-the-job training?

Here are some responses:

Peter Woodward, Heriot-Watt University 'MSc courses are instrumental in ensuring that students develop the necessary academic skills that allow them to continue to develop throughout their lives.

'Students who do MSc courses often experience the latest developments in research, which encourages them to question what has been done before. This allows them to develop the necessary skills to be able to think laterally and develop new ideas, benefiting the industry as a whole.

'On the job training is a way of teaching graduates how to solve a particular problem, this is fine until different solutions are required. It can be argued that good engineers should not be taught; they should be encouraged to learn. The skills necessary to do this are often developed on postgraduate courses.'

Paula Carey, University of Greenwich 'Universities provide state of the art rather than state of practice.

The problem with on-the-job training is that it will be provided by senior colleagues who will not have had time to keep up with the changing technologies or techniques and bad practice will be perpetuated.

'With industry-trained engineers it is often a case of 'jobs are done like that because they have always been done like that'.

But over time it is a case of 'Chinese whispers', leading to a dilution of expertise.

'Training courses run by universities should be more economic than in-house training.

Exchange of expertise is important, together with the intensive nature of such courses without the distraction of employers.'

Ian Jefferson, Nottingham Trent University 'There is insufficient coverage provided by a general civil engineering first degree, due to the diverse nature of disciplines involved. A second degree also provides an access route for graduates from allied disciplines who have a great deal to offer, such as geologists who have an advanced appreciation of risk management.'

David Fall, University of Portsmouth 'The majority of our students are from a pure geological/earth sciences background. Our courses offer them the basic skills to pursue a career in the applied geoscience industry. The importance of this route is paramount in meeting the manpower shortfall.

'I think many of our students had not heard of engineering geology or geotechnical engineering when selecting their first degrees. They only learn of these career options when they are already at university.'

Dei Huws, University of Wales, Bangor 'Although the trend is changing, MSc courses still have a role to play in giving graduates applied skills in relatively specialist areas of engineering.

'A masters course allows a student to develop as a scientist and hone skills of questioning data, models and techniques, researching widely around a topic, being able to construct and test hypotheses as a means of logical and objective problemsolving.'

Charles Harris, University of Wales, Cardiff 'An MSc course gives independent training in knowledge and skills, whereas onthe-job training means engineers are exposed only to the approach and practice of the employer and the nature of work they undertake.'

Bill Murphy, Leeds University 'The growing costs of undergraduate teaching and the government's inability to fund those costs will, without a doubt, mean that the quality of undergraduate training will be lower.

'Will the less well trained geology graduate of the future really get an understanding of soil and rock mechanics through onthe-job training? Probably not.

'Without the benefit of masters training, what is more likely is that the knowledge base of individual graduates will become increasingly patchy as they are taught techniques without a grasp of the science.

'There is no doubt in my mind that MSc training provides the academic background for industry, and what our students learn when they go into industry is very different from what they learn on the MSc course.'

Paul Nathanail, Nottingham University 'Many skills and tools are not taught at undergraduate level;

masters offer an opportunity to go up several notches in the degree of technical difficulty involved;

they build on and formalise onthe-job learning.'

Mike de Freitas, Imperial College 'Masters courses provide education in subjects that are not covered at first degree level. First degrees are essentially teaching students 'about' the subject with the aid of examples, whereas a good masters course also teaches students how to 'use' their subject.

'This requires the student to identify the problem before attempting to solve it (something first degrees have little time to consider) and then appreciating the limits of their knowledge and how it may be safely used under the circumstances.

'For example, a first degree student of geology will be taught map interpretation. An MSc will have to determine what the map reveals and what it does not with reference to what needs to be known for the site in question, and so on. In fact this level of logic provides a sound basis for CPD during a career; CPD alone does not provide that.

'There is a strong demand for MScs with two years' experience - why would an employer want that, if on-the-job training is any good?

Training that is being offered appears to be offered out of desperation. Furthermore, because companies will not sponsor the numbers required, they have to get on and offer shortterm solutions.

'But on-the-job training offers no guarantee of an intellectual architecture for the subject with the result that recipients acquire a collection of 'experiences'. Who wants to be treated by a medic that knows how to do things but does not know the circumstances under which such actions are relevant and safe?'


Perhaps course leaders are resigned to the lack of government and industry funding, but there is a marked softening in the tone of responses to this year's GE questionnaire.

It seems courses have survived largely without EPSRC funding (Newcastle and Imperial are the only universities with EPSRC studentships for soil mechanics and geotechnics courses). NERC supported courses - generally the more earth sciencefocused ones - fare slightly better.

With the first five-year EPSRC masters training programme nearing its end, even those that benefit are not banking on continued funding.

Some believe industry is starting to contribute more, but four courses claim all their students are self-funded. There may be some confusion over what actually constitutes industry support.

Intriguingly, one course leader said: 'Industry shows no evidence of supporting students, but of the three part-time students, two are directly supported by their companies.'

If universities only count industry support as bursaries or scholarships, they may be underestimating industry involvement. Others are more aware of which side the bread is buttered.

Imperial's Mike de Freitas says that with no government funding, industry support for engineering geology at Imperial is crucial.

He maintains that 'applications have increased significantly, but the take-up of places has remained static as a result of the personal finances of the applicants'. If industry wants or needs more good engineering geologists, it is going to have to pay.

De Freitas adds: 'Top-up fees will add to the first degree debt that prevents applicants from attending postgraduate courses. The knock-on effect for postgraduate education seems not to have entered the debate yet. The construction industry should be lobbying the government and opposition on this point.'

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