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Masters off course

SPOTLIGHT: The UK geotechnical industry is threatened with a skills crisis. Government funding for MSc courses in geotechnics has all but disappeared and industry appears unable or reluctant to make up the shortfall.

At current rates, there will be no applications for UK civil engineering degree courses in 2007, says Imperial College's Richard Jardine, who organises Imperial's MSc courses in soil mechanics. 'Nationally, the numbers applying to do first and second civil engineering degrees are dropping dramatically.'

The problems, Jardine says, are 'tediously' familiar and include public image, status, money, and a failing national interest in the physical sciences. Young people are simply not coming into the industry and experienced engineers continue to leave.

In the geotechnical sector, which relies on masters training to produce skilled specialists, these problems have been compounded by a dramatic fall in government funding of taught MSc courses. This follows 'zero-based' reviews in 1999 by the two main funders, the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Both bodies are focusing on funding research and masters training in new niche areas. Support of masters courses in 'traditional' subjects is expected to come from industry, they say.

Only Newcastle University's geotechnical engineering and Imperial College's soil mechanics courses have been awarded funding under the new EPSRC arrangement.

NERC, which has in the past supported many engineering geology courses in the UK, is now only funding the engineering geology courses at Leeds and Newcastle, and Reading University's hydrology and ground water quality course.

Martin Culshaw, a past chair of the decision-making NERC committee, believes its course of action is detrimental to the industry.

But 'in part it is about freeing up money for research and improving the quality of research students, not because NERC does not value MSc courses, ' he added.

Chair of the Engineering Geology Group of the Geological Society Kevin Privett says: 'As universities now consider courses as cost centres, it is very easy to see why departments are axing courses which are no longer supported by NERC.

Since research and MSc level teaching can be considered as symbiotic to a certain degree, the loss of one will mean the loss of the other.'

Almost all of the organisers of UK MSc courses in geotechnics agree that the loss of funding for advanced courses will have a serious effect on the health of UK geotechnics and on the civil engineering industry at large.

With government funding removed from the equation, they say the solution is to educate industry on the importance of advanced vocational training and to encourage industry to support courses.

'In the long term, a shortage of qualified people is inevitable, ' says Mike Price of the University of Reading. David Toll at Durham University agrees.

'Employers are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit people with the requisite skills, ' he says.

Toll has discussed the possibility of sponsorship with some engineering firms. 'The response has been that margins are too tight to invest in education and training in this way.

Industry still looks to government to ensure that there is a workforce educated to masters level.'

'There needs to be a fundamental change in attitude by UK industry, ' says Birmingham University's David Chapman. 'It expects geotechnical specialists to have at least an MSc, but there is a reluctance to help employees attain such a qualification.'

Industry is not blind to the situation however. 'Businesses have to invest in their future staff and we certainly need a good supply of well-trained people, ' says Tim Chapman of Arup Geotechnics.

He says the trend of falling applications for civil engineering courses in the UK is 'of enormous concern.

'Over the last few years, we have been employing more graduates directly from undergraduate courses and providing appropriate training and experience to make them into good geotechnical engineers.'

Both Arup and Mott MacDonald are involved in Imperial College's soil mechanics department's industrial bursary scheme, set up in 1995 to try and make up the shortfall in government funding. Eleven companies are now putting in £2,500 each per year which goes towards supporting students, or aspects of the course.

'We are constantly trying to bring in more companies, ' Jardine says.

'Fifteen years ago, we had more than 10 EPSRC awards.

These have now dwindled to just five and our UK student numbers were shrinking, although overseas and European interest remained strong. The bursary scheme has raised our level of funding considerably. We now have a few more UK-based people on the course.'

The option of running parttime courses still requires industry to support students undertaking courses, says Paula Carey at the University of Greenwich.

'These students make a substantial commitment and even then can find it difficult to get time off for one day a week for 40 weeks out of 104, ' says Peter Woodward at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh.

'The funding system is pushing us towards part-time courses for which no EPRSC or industry money needs to be found, ' Jardine says. 'This is certainly cheap and would make our lives easier, but we could not offer the same product.'

What of the future? Ultimately, it seems that UK industry will have to bite the bullet and come up with the cold hard cash if it wants to continue to have its engineers trained to the highest levels. Otherwise it will have to look overseas for experienced and qualified engineers.

The implications are clear. 'If industry and government both turn their backs on this problem, the UK economy will lose the stream of bright, committed and well-trained geotechnical engineers who underpin the success of the British Geotechnical Association and many British companies, ' says Richard Jardine.

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