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GEOTECH - shape of things to come?

* Dr George Reeves is Director of the Decommissioning and Environmental Remediation Centre - part of the UHI Millennium Institute, Thurso Caithness, due to become the University of the Highlands and Islands in 2007.

Geoscientist 17.2 February 2007

George Reeves* thinks he may have a practicable answer to the current parlous state of the applied geoscience masters.

Many senior engineering geologists currently working in the UK today owe a great debt to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) which, for over 40 years, supported the applied Earth science postgraduate training in UK universities that gave them their career start. The late Sir John Knill (a key instigator of the Imperial College MSc course and later NERC Chairman) helped to maintain funding to the various departments putting on such courses in Engineering Geology (notably at Imperial College, Durham, Leeds and Newcastle Universities).

In the 1996 NERC review, a threat to remove all such studentships was averted. However the level of funding (then at £9000 + fees) was frozen by NERC in an effort to increase funding for Earth science PhD studentships, which were “inflation-proofed” in an attempt to attract more applicants.

In the late 1990s things became even tighter, with a number of universities questioning the cost-effectiveness of applied MSc courses in the Earth sciences. Some courses (in hydrogeology, geophysics, palynology) closed. It was also soon evident that UK industry (especially the civil engineering and oil companies) would not step into the breach as the Research Councils expected.

With decreasing government support, a new solution is now urgently needed to meet future demand in civil engineering and associated industries. As retirement and age take their toll, an alarming shortage of experienced engineering geologists, geotechnical engineers, hydrogeologists and contaminated land specialists is becoming apparent. Surely the recent 40th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster should remind us all of the need for specialist engineering and hydrogeological training.

“Industry will (and should) pay” was the 1990s mantra; but a series of initiatives (50% grants, Masters training packages, part-time courses and modules) has not produced the required industry response to MSc-level training support - at least not in the UK. Many established courses have either closed or are under increasing threat. The training of replacements for the outgoing generation is fast becoming a national emergency.

The consortium approach - MTECH

In the UK with its threatened, changing and declining maritime industries, a novel approach was developed to maintain relevant training and research. Thus the “multi-university consortium” concept was born, at Newcastle University’s Marine Technology Centre, in the form of the Marine Technology Education Consortium (MTEC). The MTEC programme is now offered by a consortium of six universities – Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, Newcastle, Southampton, Strathclyde and University College London (UCL)mwith Newcastle coordinating. Marine Technology postgraduate training is thus continued and maintained for UK and international students by combining the strengths of six centres, funded and supported by an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Collaborative Training Agreement (CTA) package.

The modular programme provides flexible, innovative, training for graduates working full time in the marine industry. Each module is worth 10 credits, requires 100 hours study time and is offered as a stand-alone CPD module or as part of a programme leading to a Postgraduate Certificate, Postgraduate Diploma or MSc. The MSc and Postgraduate Diploma are available in seven technology streams: Naval Architecture, Marine Engineering, Offshore Engineering, Small Craft Design, Marine Classification and Survey, Conversion and Repair of Ships and Offshore Structures, and Marine Technology for the Defence Services. The MSc and Postgraduate Diploma also involve a research project and dissertation.

Modules are delivered by a combination of distance learning and one week intensive “schools”. For each module, there are pre-school preparation and post-school assignments. MSc and Postgraduate Diploma degree awards are available in all seven technology areas, as is a Postgraduate Certificate. Those undertaking an MSc or Postgraduate Diploma must complete an industry-based project.


The next consortium to be formed, the Nuclear Technology Education Consortium (NTEC), grew up against the background of an aging workforce, poor perceptions of career prospects, and mounting concern over the loss of key skills and knowledge.

NTEC was formed to deliver a unique, nationally coordinated programme of postgraduate and CPD training for the nuclear energy, fusion, legacy clean-up, and naval propulsion sectors. The programme began operating in September 2005. It is much bigger than its predecessor. By May 2004, eleven constituent institutions (Birmingham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield, City, Imperial and London universities, HMS Sultan, UHI Millennium Institute & Westlakes Research Institute) was set up, together representing more than 90% of the UK’s nuclear postgraduate teaching expertise. NTEC thus provides a single umbrella organisation for a range of postgraduate training in Nuclear Science & Technology unparalleled in the UK.

The breadth and format of its training is designed to meet the UK's projected nuclear skills requirements. The programme’s structure and content, which leads to qualifications up to Master's level in Nuclear Science & Technology, was established following extensive consultations with the UK nuclear sector, including industry, regulators, MoD, NDA, government departments and the Cogent Skills Council. Following these consultations NTEC submitted a proposal to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for development funding. EPSRC have now awarded a grant of just over £1m over four years.

The NTEC programme also has a modular structure, the core of each topic being delivered in one week’s intensive teaching at the relevant institution. This allows the MSc to be obtained over three years (part-time), or in one year full-time. A postgraduate certificate or postgraduate diploma in Nuclear Science & Technology may also be obtained. The modular structure also allows modules to be taken for CPD purposes, and students successfully completing a single module may, if they wish, apply for a transfer to the full programme.

Modules are generally delivered at the providing institution. Students seeking a postgraduate qualification register with the university of their choice and visit other consortium members for their selected modules. The programme, phased in since September 2005, is coordinated by the Dalton Nuclear Institute (University of Manchester).


So, why can’t we apply these successful models to the needs of the UK and European geotechnical marketplace? A GEOTECH consortium could draw together (say) Imperial, Durham, Leeds, Newcastle, Portsmouth Reading and UCL, in presenting a series of engineering geology, hydrogeology and geophysics MSc modules. These could, with NERC funding similar to that of MTEC and NTEC programmes, provide full-time (for an initial four-year period) and a developing part-time structured programme, with comparable “seed-corn” studentships (~10/yr), costing some £1m for an initial four-year start-up.

It became obvious, during sessions in the recent IAEG conference (Nottingham, September 2006) that the current parlous state of postgraduate MSc courses in applied geology, geotechnics and hydrogeology was not unique to this country. In Germany, a consortium approach between universities is already in place; in Holland long-established courses are under threat or being restructured, while in France there is an acknowledged shortage of young, well educated specialist engineers and scientists.

The need to make industry (and what is left of applied Earth science postgraduate training in UK HEIs), wake up to the shortage of young specialists that is apparent to everyone in industry. This novel, proven solution, well established in other areas of UK industry with similar needs and problems, provides a credible alternative approach.

Perhaps the Engineering and Hydrogeological Groups, led by suitably experienced members of the Society’s new Education and Training Committee, together with the British Geological Survey and NERC and/or EPSRC, should take steps to address this important and pressing issue.

Further reading

NTEC MTEC Programme Handbooks 2006 (
Newcastle University Postgraduate Prospectus (www.mtec@work)

* Dr George Reeves is Director of the Decommissioning and Environmental Remediation Centre - part of the UHI Millennium Institute, Thurso Caithness, due to become the University of the Highlands and Islands in 2007. The views expressed in this article are his own.