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Why MEng take-up is in danger

News

Last week MPs voted to take legislation enabling universities to charge students up to £3,000 a year to the next stage.

What will it mean for civil engineering?

At the moment most students have to pay tuition fees of £1,125 a year. If top up fees come into force civils students studying a four year MEng degree face the daunting prospect of taking on another £1,875 a year in debt at universities deciding to levy maximum top up fees of £3,000 a year.

Even with living expenses of only around £4000 a year, many would be left owning a total of £28,000 by the time they left university.

The ICE fears that students facing this level of debt after a four year civils MEng could opt for the less financially demanding three year BEng qualification. Worse still they could opt out of civil engineering altogether.

Most universities disagree.

The elite Russell Group of universities - which represents traditional civil engineering strongholds such as Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge and Imperial - has made it clear that its members will charge the full amount, arguing that quality will count.

'We would stand by the quality of our product, ' says Bristol University head of civil engineering David Blockley.

'What we are delivering is first class and, as in all walks of life, you pays your money and you takes your choice.'

UMIST head of civil engineering Ian Whyte agrees.

'Students pay fees now, they graduate with debt now.

People see the benefit of the MEng as opposed to the BEng and there will still be a market for it, although maybe not as broad as it is today, ' adds Whyte.

Universities outside the Russell Group may be those expected to pick up those students who seek a cheaper degree. But many academics expect that even they will be forced to follow suit, worried that a cheaper degree would be viewed as an inferior one.

'Almost all will go for full fees, because of the marketing implications, ' says Portsmouth University head of civil engineering John Reynolds.

'It is a worry, as we have a lot of four year students, both on the four year MEng and doing a three year BEng plus foundation year, and they already struggle financially.

'One of the biggest dangers is that the four year MEng is going to be difficult to justify, ' says Reynolds.

But without fees, civils courses face a grim future, warns Whyte.

'The biggest problem is that educating engineers properly is expensive. Even with top up fees the money will not meet the gap in academic funding, and when economic pressures come on, its inevitable that you're going to lose the disciplines with a high cost to student ratio, ' says Whyte.

And the situation will get much worse next year if the Higher Education Funding Council for England presses ahead with plans to cut funding for civils degrees.

Mark Hansford

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