The system of A levels in England changed last year to A/S examinations in the first year of the sixth form, with the option of taking certain A/S subjects to the S2 level for the full A level in their second year.
In the 2001 A/S mathematics examination, the failure rate was 28% compared to 5% for the full A level the previous year.
The numbers converting to read the full A level are not known, but a limited review of colleges in the North West showed the conversion rate from A/S to S2 level fell by between 30% and 70%.
It is therefore possible that there will be a dramatic fall in students eligible to study science and engineering degrees this September - rumours are of one university experiencing a 50% drop.
University civil engineering departments are already facing financial difficulties and NCE has reported the closure and merger of many departments.
The possible meltdown with mathematics A levels this year, can only accelerate this trend and could well be the straw for some departments.
This will be the case particularly if the disastrous A/S results of 2001 are repeated in 2002. The outlook for graduates available for employment in four to five years time is not good.
The welcome news last week was that 67% of firms believe there should be closer bonds with educational institutions.
Companies could invest in their potential employees through not only direct student sponsorship, but also by investment in the universities through sponsored lectureships and chairs.
Ian Whyte (F), director of undergraduate studies, Manchester Centre for Civil and Construction Engineering, UMIST, PO Box 88, Manchester, M60 1QD