Demands for better A level results from an ever decreasing pool of applicants to civil engineering courses are threatening to delete the subject from university syllabuses across the UK.
Under the Engineering Council's SARTOR education reforms, at least 40% of the students on the MEng courses starting next month must have at least 24 A level points or more (the equivalent to three grade Bs). The requirement for BEng courses is 18 points (equivalent to three Cs). Failure to meet this target could mean courses not being accredited by the ICE and, therefore, its students being blocked from pursuing Chartered status. Next year the requirement rises to 48%
Students who don't make the cut are now directed towards IEng courses which are designed to lead to Associate or Technician Membership grade.
However, given that applications for civils courses are 11% down on last year, some departments are fighting for their lives.
Many have narrowly made the target for BEng courses, but admit that they may struggle when the ICE's Joint Board of Moderators visits to re- accredit its courses under the 48% rule. They are also finding it difficult to attract students to the new IEng courses.
In the past, universities have often relied on overseas students with unrecognised qualifications to fill their quota, but under the new rules only 20% of the entry will be allowed non-standard qualifications. 'The days when a civil engineering degree with a quota of 29 could be filled with 27 Greek students are over,' says one academic.
Professor Brian Lee, head of civil engineering at Portsmouth University, says the former polytechnics are hardest hit.
'The old universities like Nottingham, Imperial College and Birmingham are reaching their targets. But ultimately, it will be at the expense of places like Nottingham Trent and Aston. Any course recruiting less than 40 civils students is vulnerable.'
Civil engineering departments at Westminster, Sunderland and Queen Mary & Westfield have already closed and Lee, who is an external assessor for the JBM, sees more shutdowns on the horizon.
'I know of seven universities which don't intend to get their BEng courses re-accredited because they won't get the numbers,' he says. 'I also know of six universities which have submitted course details to the JBM, but will be turned down when their accreditation comes up.'
Lee argues that departments will not be saved by IEng courses. 'All the old universities, with the exception of Salford, aren't running IEng courses,' he says. 'They don't attract enough students and the departments don't want to be associated with Technicians and Associates.'
Hertfordshire University head of civil engineering, Professor David Bonner, confirms that just 20% of his 1999 BEng intake had 18 A level points. He says that Hertfordshire will no longer run a BEng in civil engineering after its SARTOR accreditation period runs out, but that lost numbers are very unlikely to be made up by an IEng intake.
'Our BEng will be disaccredited but at the same time there is not a market for the IEng degree,' he added. 'Civil engineering in the department is under threat. The ICE should be worrying where its future membership is going to come from.'
Some universities are turning their backs on pure civil engineering to ensure survival.
Portsmouth is likely to replace its flagship BEng course with a construction engineering degree accredited by the Chartered Institute of Building. Civils departments have merged with construction engineering at Teesside and Glamorgan, while civil engineering at Kingston has merged with mechanical engineering.
Rather than running an IEng course, some universities with a portfolio of built environment courses are considering introducing courses in construction engineering or building technology leading to Chartered status with the CIOB or the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
But Lee claims it is not too late to make a change. He proposes a standard four year course with a requirement of 18 A level points leading to Chartered status with the ICE.
'We have to get ourselves out of this stupid mess,' he says. 'They talked about inverting the pyramid so that there were more Incorporated engineers than Chartered engineers, but if you take into account all the subcontractors in the industry, you already have your inverted pyramid. The whole premise was wrong from the word go. Let's start again from scratch and design a four year course for everyone.'