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UK course directors are having to think creatively to protect their geo-related masters degrees from the threat of closure. Alexandra Wynne investigates.

Geo-related courses are facing a bleaker future compared with last year. The total number of courses has fallen this year as academics report course suspensions and funding concerns.

The University of Durham suspended three of its four masters courses last year because of low student numbers and has suspended all four for the coming academic year. The decision reflects the comments from the university's engineering school course director, Charles Augarde's in last year's roundup, that once closed, a course is very diffi cult to reopen (GE February 2006).

Although the applied geotechnics masters at Camborne School of Mines is still running and has the same number of students as last year, course director John Coggan is not confi dent that things will stay that way.

'We offer a specialist programme that is able to focus on a particular aspect of geotechnics, ' he says.

'However, the danger is it may be too much of a specialisation and if numbers do not increase then we may have to consider the future of the programme.'

Illustrating Coggan's point, Camborne has announced its intention to close the MSc in environmental management - a course that has geotechnically related aspects to its syllabus.

But academics were optimistic when discussing the calibre of postgraduates. Following a BGA meeting last year that debated whether chartered civil engineers are as good as they used to be (GE May 2006), GE asked how they would respond if a similar charge was made about masters students.

Rather than saying that student standards have slipped, many agreed that things have changed.

University of Birmingham senior lecturer in geotechnical engineering, Ian Jefferson and University of Leeds course director, Bill Murphy both agree that today's students, and their skills, are different from those of yesteryear.

Murphy says that although students may not be as numerate as they used to be, industry colleagues seem happy that masters graduates are bringing newer skills such as problem solving to the workplace.

But if employers wish to continue to fi nd high quality graduates, Jefferson says they need to become more involved in masters level training to ensure that what they get at the end matches their needs.

According to University of Newcastle dean of postgraduate studies, Bryn Jones, industry is managing to increase its involvement, illustrated by what he sees as a significant increase in the number of part time students who are also working. He says that typically they are sponsored by their employer and allowed study leave to complete the course.

There were almost equal reports from academia as to whether they experienced increases, decreases or no change in the number of students compared to the previous year.

However, Imperial College London course director for soil mechanics masters, Matthew Coop says there is a gradual decline in numbers of UK students on its courses.

Without some form of additional sponsorship he suspects they will continue to shy away from postgraduate study.

Rosalie Orriss, University of Cambridge course administrator, reports an increase in the number of self funded overseas students in the university's engineering department and says that funding difficulties facing UK students is to blame.

Many agree extra funding as the only solution to the problem. In response to GE's question about what could be done to encourage more students to stay on for postgraduate study the almost unanimous response echoed what was said in last year's roundup - that industry or government needs to contribute more funding.

Coop adds that UK students seem more inclined to complete a masters when it forms part of a four-year programme, as is the case with many engineering courses, rather than attending a stand alone oneyear MSc. He suggests that UK students become financially independent from their parents at an earlier age than overseas students and are unable to rely on parental contributions beyond their first degree. But he also considers the possibility that UK students fail to recognise the long term benefits of investing in postgraduate study.

University of Wales, Bangor MSc course director, Dei Huws recognises that this view might be the key to protecting the future of geo-related masters. He says: 'If the EU funding stops, I don't know if our course will be sustainable in its present form.'

Huws and his colleagues are looking at restructuring the course to offer more four-year combined BSc and MSc options to students in the future. He hopes that the move might help Bangor retain the existing BSc students while still attracting external candidates for the oneyear postgraduate element.

The University of Portsmouth has revamped its masters programme and has announced that the MSc ground investigation and assessment will be replaced by a newly designed MSc engineering geology course from October 2007.

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