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Master Blaster

It is a mix of good and bad news from the academic world this year for the UK's geo-related masters courses. Alexandra Wynne gives a round-up of views on the state of play.

For a UK geotechnical course listing please click below;

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The industry boost caused by upcoming mega-projects such as the Olympics and Crossrail in London could prove to be a thorn in the side of course leaders. The majority of respondents to GE's latest masters course survey say the UK geo-industry is ill-equipped to cope with these kinds of projects.

While many recognise that these projects will make it necessary to upskill and train workers to cope with the demand, both Professor Matthew Coop and Clarke Fenton of Imperial College London predict that more demanding work schedules will mean employers are less likely to release employees to return to study for a masters.

However, there is some positive news from academics regarding the shortage of geo-workers.

The substantial presence of overseas students on UK masters courses could help industry plug the skills gap, with almost all course leaders reporting that the majority of overseas students plan to gain work in the UK upon graduating.

Such a resource should offer some limited comfort to employers.

Steve Thornton of the University of Sheffield says his institution is all too aware of the reluctance to release employees into education and says it has designed its courses with part-time study in mind, allowing students flexibility to fit masters training around work commitments.

Many course leaders say they expect student uptake to take a turn for the worst. John Coggan at Camborne School of Mines (part of the University of Exeter) says despite offering more scholarships for high-achieving undergraduates to stay on for postgraduate study, student numbers on its applied geotechnics course remain low.

Echoing his message from last year's roundup, Coggan adds that if numbers do not increase, the university may consider closing the course or charging premium fees for such vocational programmes.

Many universities have taken action to try and reverse the decline in student numbers. Imperial College London is changing the title of its engineering geology masters courses to make it more explicit what students will be capable of doing upon graduating – for example, the MSc in engineering geology will become MSc in engineering geology for ground models in the next academic year.

The message from academia is for government and industry to invest more time, scholarships and funding and support for the geotechnical and geoenvironmental workforce at a postgraduate level.

It seems that without it – as was the message last year – academia will fall short of supplying the skilled workforce so much in need right now.

Bill Murphy from University of Leeds says the skills shortage is made worse by the lack of understanding about what geotechnical career paths are available to geology students.

He suggests senior practitioners could reach out to these students through presentations on the more exciting aspects of such careers, but warns against companies using such a platform for self-promotion.

Malcolm Whitworth from the University of Portsmouth also wants to encourage company involvement and argues that this needs to happen early – with both sponsorship and bringing forward work placements to the start of a course, rather than being left until students are leaving university.

He also asks why employers do not redirect budgets allocated to recruitment agencies to student sponsorships?

On a positive note, reports suggest a concern for student apathy towards attending regional industry meetings (Talking point, GE November 2007) might be inaccurate. Almost all respondents were keen to emphasise that young engineers are showing up to relevant organised society meetings. And the University of Strathclyde and University of Dundee have announced they are set to open new courses this year.

However, the news is not all good – Nottingham Trent University admits there is uncertainty surrounding its MSc in geotechnical engineering. As GE went to press, plans were afoot to suspend, or alter it to an MRes, for the 2008 intake.

Student subscriptions

GE is offering a free 12-month subscription offer (for 2008 issues) to students on geo-related masters courses in the UK. Please note that during the academic year student subscribers will receive two email job alerts from Ground Engineering on behalf of Balfour Beatty Ground Engineering, the geotechnical company that is sponsoring the scheme.

To take up the offer, please send your name and correspondence email address to

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