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talking point

Engineering geology masters courses are under threat, warns Max Soudain.

News that the National Environment Research Council is reviewing its funding of masters has dismayed organisers of engineering geology courses, who fear that at the very least, their funding will be reduced, threatening vocational training provision for engineering geologists.

NERC is following the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's lead by operating a 'zero-based' review of all masters courses. It proposes to 'reinvigorate' its portfolio by supporting new courses and supporting fewer taught vocational MSc courses, arguing that some are more appropriately funded by industry.

It is thought that NERC is moving away from vocational training towards research based training as a reaction to a perceived fall in the quality of applicants for PhD research grants. Its argument is that making higher grants available at PhD level will attract the most able candidates . Funding is likely to be channelled away from masters into PhDs and from vocational MSc to MRes (masters by research) courses.

NERC provides about 240 MSc and 45 MRes studentships every year (courses must be one year, full time). It says the review will not make any assumptions about this ratio, and while it 'will not necessarily result in fewer studentships, ' it will be 'focused on fewer courses'. More ominously, NERC says it 'will move away from set allocations of studentships for particular science areas'.

A zero-based review bases assessment on the current situation and takes no account of historical information. NERC says 'it will not be logistically possible to embark on any individual university visits'.

Instead, a two stage bidding competition will be adopted, with initial assessment on written outline bids on an application form and a course outline written on two sides of A4. So, for example, a course that has been running for more than 40 years - such as the engineering geology masters at Imperial College - will be assessed purely on the responses to a twopage questionnaire.

Courses with funded places are guaranteed support until the end of the 2000/01 academic year. 'These will be included in the review during the coming year in competition with any applications for recognition and support from new courses for 2001-6, ' NERC says.

Outline bids were submitted in April. Those passing this first stage will be asked to submit full bids by the end of August, with a final decision made in October. NERC will give priority to courses providing training in 'fields of particular strategic importance'. The list, published on its website, now includes engineering geology and geomaterials, geophysics, mining geology and mineral exploration, sustainability and environmental geoscience and hydrogeology - but two months ago it did not.

Significantly NERC's policy contradicts the 1993 Government Science White Paper, which lays down the aims of the research councils. This states: 'Research councils need to change the balance of support, providing more postgraduate awards for masters level training and fewer awards for the more highly selected group who will go on to undertake a further period of research training, normally for three years.'

Funding changes will have a significant impact on industry, since masters level education is effectively part of the professional training. Many budding engineering geologists start their careers in site investigation companies, logging core and running small sites. The next step is to study for a masters qualification before returning to work, probably for a consultant. Many consultants say that this background is exactly what they are looking for - better than graduates, MEng candidates or PhDs.

NERC maintains that industry should do more to support vocational training, even though it admits many small and medium-sized firms depend on masters training. If it continues to follow the ESPRC, NERC is likely to operate a tapered strategy, slowly reducing funding with the shortfall being made up by industry until its money replaces NERC funding altogether. The petroleum industry has adopted this pattern, relying on research council funding for more specialised research. However, many geotechnical firms simply cannot afford this sort of investment.

Course leaders say masters need a minimum of 12-16 candidates. Without NERC studentships, the viability of many courses will be in the balance.

Any changes to the ways both NERC and EPSRC fund masters courses will be far-reaching. Graduates are already leaving university thousands of pounds in debt and are unlikely to want to fund themselves through a masters, especially if salaries in the industry remain relatively low.

With high salaries, high status and good prospects, careers in the financial and IT sectors look increasingly appealing to the intelligent and ambitious graduates the engineering industry wants to employ. Reducing the amount of vocational training available will not encourage good graduates to consider a career in engineering. Job satisfaction only goes so far. It does not pay the bills.

Max Soudain is deputy editor of GE. Before turning to journalism he worked with Soil Mechanics for three years and took his masters in engineering geology at Imperial College.

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