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Talking Point

The geotechnical sector will be hard hit by education cuts which will bite into postgraduate specialist training as much as undergraduate provision, declares Dr Malcolm Whitworth

Education cuts have received almost continuous press coverage since the government initiated its spending review late last year.

The impact on higher education will be huge, with universities losing most of their government grants and students having to make up this shortfall through increased tuition fees.

What has been less prominent is the impact of these cuts on postgraduate provision, particularly in the ground engineering sector where industry relies upon a steady stream of engineering, geology and geotechnical graduates from UK-based masters courses.

In short, ground engineering courses will lose their funding in the same way as undergraduate courses.

The withdrawal of NERC research council support for some courses in the UK has already been announced, but the loss of central government funding will be the most significant cut of all for postgraduate provision across the higher education sector.

Although government has announced that the publication of the Higher Education White Paper, due later this month, may address issues of postgraduate funding, given the current financial landscape, there seems little financial room for manoeuvre.

Proposed cuts in some form are likely to go ahead.

These changes in funding leave considerable shortfalls in university income.

“The government will clearly no longer fund MSc courses. Employers will now need to play a much greater role in supporting those ground engineering related MSc courses that are left.”

A move to a full cost model for MSc courses is on the horizon with resulting increases in tuition fees in 2012 very likely.

The future remains uncertain and given that tuition fees are paid “upfront” it is not clear how these new fees will affect the number of students entering ground engineering courses.

My experience has been that graduates do understand the value of vocational MSc courses but must weigh this against the cost of funding themselves through another year of education - it is often a very difficult decision, one that does put off a number of potential students every year.

Clearly, we need to try to address these issues of funding if we are to prevent the decline of ground engineering courses in the UK.

The government will clearly no longer fund MSc courses and its expectation is that industry will step up to the mark.

Employers will now need to play a much greater role in supporting those ground engineering related MSc courses that are left.

Surely it makes simple economic sense to ensure that those courses left are able to attract students to fulfil the demand for graduates from our industry partners?

We have an opportunity: now is the time for universities and industry to sit down and agree how the remaining courses are to be supported, otherwise industry may increasingly have to look overseas for graduates.

  • Dr Malcolm Whitworth is principal lecturer in the School of Earth & Environmental Sciences at Portsmouth University

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