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University Meets Industry

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Engineering Geology and Geotechnical Engineering MSc courses – what is the problem?

A recent meeting arranged by the AGS on behalf of The Ground Forum brought together academics and industry representatives in order to better understand the problems and pressures facing MSc courses and the impact that these will have on the ground engineering sector’s need for qualified and competent professionals.

There are currently 15 universities in the UK offering courses in subjects that would qualify as ground engineering.  Several courses have closed in the past few years – including courses in hydrogeology, even though experienced hydrogeologists are in short supply.

So what is the problem?

University Finance:  All courses are under pressure to diversify income, and Government support is now heavily biased  towards research and research degrees.  Most universities now have a strategy in place to improve research income and increase PhD recruitment.  MSc courses continue – but only if they are profitable.

Student Numbers:   To be self sustaining an MSc course needs 16 or more students.  In the past student numbers were limited by a shortage of students completing first degrees in civil engineering and geology.  This problem has been resolved to some extent in recent years but has been replaced by new difficulties:-

  • 4 year MEng and MSci Courses:  How likely is it that someone who has spent 4 years obtaining a Masters degree in civil engineering or geology will want to do a further year in order to qualify as an engineering geologist or geotechnical engineer?   Yet universities have confirmed that 4 year first degree courses do not contain sufficient ground engineering to make someone proficient in this area.
  • Increasing Fees:  The rise in undergraduate tuition fees is likely to have three effects relevant to this discussion:
    • decrease in undergraduate enrolment
    • increased levels of student debt
    • a corresponding rise in the cost of postgraduate course fees

      A survey by Birmingham University of students who enrolled for an MSc course but withdrew before it began (‘non-arrivals’) revealed that finance was a significant factor.  When Leeds University increased course fees to £5,000 this year, there was a 40% drop in enrolments.   MSc fees next year could rise to £12,000…..

  • Withdrawal of Grants:  NERC and EPSRC funding ended some time ago.  There are now almost no grants available for MSc ground engineering students – and course fees must be paid at the door!

The problem is compounded by the relatively poor pay for ground engineers and the lower status of engineers in the UK (compared to Europe and elsewhere).

Can Industry Help?
The message that went back to Universities from Industry was – not much at present.  Companies already sponsor students and prizes; provide research projects and facilities for MSc dissertations and PhD research; make visiting lecturers available; contribute to industry sponsored bursaries; provide work experience.  Some do more than others, and some would do more if Universities were more adept at making and fostering relationships with companies. But the realities of the economic situation at present make increasing financial support a non-starter.

A number of universities offer flexible courses (eg part time, or block release courses and even distance learning).  These are welcomed and there is scope to increase them and make them more suited to employers requirements.  Closer liaison between academia and industry could improve both the suitability of courses (place, time, structure) and the usefulness of the courses (subject matter and research).

Where to go from here?

One of the most positive results from the meeting was that academics were brought together and agreed to form their own alliance for future contact with the ground industry.  This alliance is expected to meet regularly with representatives from The Ground Forum Members (eg AGS, BDA, BGA, FPS, GeolSoc, PJA, and others) to explore innovative ways to ensure that courses continue, and that they meet the needs of employers.

The Ground Forum will also consider whether there are ways of fulfilling its skills needs other than an MSc.  This would not be with the intention of abandoning the MSc as a qualification, but to widen the diversity of options available through training, very possibly delivered by Universities, but leading to certificates and diplomas rather than a second degree.

The Ground Forum has lobbied for Government recognition of the importance of ground engineering and the need for ground engineers.  It will continue to do so via a meeting of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee at the end of February 2012, and via an article in Science in Parliament that will emphasise the contribution that ground engineering makes to the economy and to emphasise the need for Government Departments that make use of ground engineering skills (eg DEFRA, DEC, BIS, etc) to also fund training and to understand the relationship between margins and industries ability to support its own professional development needs.

During the meeting it was agreed that both parties are missing opportunities to support each other and develop more effective communication. Universities have a communication network that includes both past and present students.  Industry has recruitment needs –for permanent positions but also for short term and temporary posts which could be facilitated by the university network.  Students benefit from work placements and work experience – and the company that provides it has an opportunity to assess them and their capabilities for future employment.  Similarly, companies providing dissertation projects benefit from cost effective research, and the possibility of future employees. Expect to hear more of this in 2012 …..