The message from GE's February 2004 masters round-up was generally upbeat with the number of places filled rising on previous years. But this year, while there is some good news with new courses starting, some have closed and others are under pressure.
Michael de Freitas, who runs the engineering geology masters course at Imperial College, says: 'The main effect by far [on student numbers] is lack of funding for postgraduates. The greater part of industry has still to appreciate that their support in terms of funds for bursaries is needed and will continue to be needed.' Students on the courses he runs are funded by a mixture of research council and industrial sponsorship via the Imperial College bursary scheme.
As might be expected in a competitive climate, innovation has driven course numbers.
Cardiff University's Charles Harris says recent strategies have borne fruit: 'Encouraging paid student industrial placements for the summer six months has worked well. We secured 28 paid placements in 2004.' He also feels that employers want breadth.'The applied environmental geology course includes geotechnical and environmental components. This broad training appears to be attractive to industry.'
But the news is not all positive. Paula Carey, at the University of Greenwich says its engineering geology and geomaterials and contaminated land remediation courses are threatened: 'Several short courses have not run as programmed because of lack of numbers.' Highlighting the importance of course promotion she says: 'We are still trying to run short courses rather than traditional 12 month masters courses but lack of funding for advertising means the uptake is still very low.' Noelle Odling who runs the hydrogeology masters at the University of Leeds agrees:
'Advertising seems to be very important to maintaining student numbers. This year we are doing more advertising abroad to try and increase the number of overseas students.' But funding appears to be the key factor in course survival.
Peter Woodward from Heriot-Watt University says: 'In general, the funding for MSc courses in geotechnical engineering is very limited despite the qualification still being highly valued by industry.
'The demand for graduates seems to be as strong as ever, perhaps even more so in recent years, yet industry seems reluctant to send students on the courses. It wants students to have the qualification already rather than pay for them to attend during their professional career.
'Unless industry makes use of these courses and sends more students on them they run the real risk of masters courses closing down as they will simply become uneconomic for universities to resource.
'Many students do not wish to further increase their debt by attending postgraduate courses. This effect has been clearly observed with other postgraduate degrees such as PhDs.' However, as old courses are threatened, new ones have started. Odling says: 'The hydrogeology MSc course started with 14 students this year and some applicants I had to defer to 2005.
I am aiming at around 20 for 2005-06.' A new addition last September at the University of Birmingham is the MSc in geotechnical engineering and management. Jan Fasci takes the longer view. 'We did not get approval until early September so we only recruited three students.We are hoping for better numbers next year, though courses do take time to bed down and advertise themselves.' Responses on how institutions are combating falling student numbers provided a variety of responses.
Matthew Coop from Imperial College explains how his courses are adapting: 'We introduced new options of soil mechanics with sustainable development and soil mechanics with business management last year to complement our existing courses.
'These options were introduced right across the spectrum of civil engineering MScs, and overall the impact was significant.
Unfortunately while the numbers in soil mechanics were increased slightly last year, this year the numbers are similar to previous years.
We are planning to add a further option with computing, again across the suite of civil engineering MScs, next year.'
David Toll from the University of Durham highlights another strategy: 'Offering modules that are attractive to overseas students, for example tropical and arid soils, has produced an increase in overseas student numbers.' University of Reading's Mark Hodson says of the soils and environmental pollution course:
'Our main line of attack is going to be running an undergraduate conference to promote the MSc and soil science in general.' Hodson believes that industry still values masters qualifications but does not know why.'I think that industry just likes to differentiate between all those people who have degrees these days.My impression from our MSc graduates is that they have to learn on the job.While we give them some applied training, industry still has to do the important bit. However by asking people for a masters degree industry makes applications more manageable.' But industry still does not seem fully prepared to invest in masters level training.
Toll says that masters programmes in the UK are still dependent on overseas students. 'It would not be viable to run courses based on UK student numbers. Industry continues to find it hard to recruit people with masters level qualifications but companies are unwilling to financially support students on such courses.' But if the picture from academia regarding commercial funding seems bleak, the story from industry takes a different tack.
Geotechnical and Environmental Associates managing director Steve Branch says: 'I've spoken to a university in the past and they don't let us sponsor students, only courses.
'We have sponsored students in the past where they work for us on a part time basis and we pay their course fees.We have a gentleman's agreement on how long they will work for us afterwards.
'The problem is pairing up the prospective MSc student who wants funding with companies that can provide it.' Branch believes students who go straight from a first degree into an MSc probably do not have the time to write to all the companies that might provide funding, even though he feels there are plenty of companies that would be happy to sponsor students.
He explains: 'I've never had a course leader phone me up to say 'will you sponsor a student-'. There seems to be no linkage between companies that want to sponsor students and courses that would like that sponsorship.' This communication problem aside, Branch values the focus that postgraduate courses give:
'To the vocational student a masters is essential. If they have a geology degree and no masters we wouldn't employ them.' Piling Solutions Ceri Hobbs highlights a different area where academia and industry could work closer together.
'I recently went through the trauma of having an engineer leave to do an MSc in engineering geology. The course he wanted to do was at Imperial College and it had to be done full time.
I understand the reasons for going. Imperial has a worldwide reputation. But [in this case] the employee has to decide whether to leave their job.
'Colleges want full-time students but industry can't always afford to pay for that.We could have happily paid for part time study or at a stretch one term per year.' Hobbs would favour a contractual relationship where companies can recoup on their investments as there is no guarantee that students will continue to work for them. He says that although there must be willingness within industry to invest in the future, with tight profit margins there is not much money available.
'What we need is flexibility [on the part of ] the colleges, ' he says.
Arup leader of geotechnics business in Europe, Jim Johnson says: 'We do support students on an ad-hoc basis which equals one or two people a year but not full-time. On the more expensive courses like MBAs we have a contract situation [but on other courses] we are selective in the people we send and have to be reasonably confident that the person will come back to us.
'There are 101 things we could invest in so we have to prioritise what will be the most benefit to the business.'