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Westminster axes Construction Hall in course closure

ONE OF Britain's most important large structures research and testing laboratories is to be abandoned with the closure of Westminster University's civil engineering department next summer.

The purpose-built Construction Hall laboratory at the Marylebone Road campus has been a valued construction resource since it was built in the late 1960s. The hall's attraction is first its size - around 50m by 75m with a 20m high roof - plus its high strength cellular floor which has a grid of 50t capacity anchor bolts.

Equipment installed in the lab includes a 1,000t Amsler press with a floating bed, thought to be one of the biggest in Britain, will be stripped to convert the hall into new lecture theatres as part of the university's strategy to 'maximise the flexibility of its property'.

Recent clients have included the Highways Agency, WS Atkins, O'Rourke and Taylor Woodrow, working on projects such as segment testing for the Channel Tunnel, Jubilee Line Extension and Heathrow Express. Columns and other structural connections have also been tested for the Bluewater shopping centre.

Westminster blames falling demand for civil engineering studies for the move. Enrolment this year was around 40% of expected student numbers across all its full and part time courses.

The Engineering Council's SARTOR reforms, pushing up entry requirements on civils courses, have reduced student numbers, it claims.

Around 130 undergraduate, PhD and MSc students will be forced to continue their studies elsewhere after June 1999. Many will have to leave specialised research work unfinished.

Closure follows the decision by Queen Mary's College, London, to shut its department. South Bank University has also decided to quit laboratories in Wandsworth and Kings College stopped running civils courses some years ago. Westminster currently offers the only evening class MSc course in structural engineering.

'We are not recruiting enough civil engineering students,' said a spokesman for Westminster. 'There is no evidence that this will turn around in the future. We need to make better use of the facilities in Marylebone.'

Westminster's civil engineering students and staff claim the decision is property driven and that the university has deliberately wound down the department. Staff numbers have fallen over the last decade from 30 academics and 60 technicians to the six academics and two technicians.

Staff claim the university has failed to market its research and testing facility in the Construction Hall effectively particularly since key academics left.

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