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Cast out

Ted Nield might never have learned so much regional geology were it not for an extra mural classTed Nield proposes a boo for the Government and three cheers for the plucky extra mural Earth Science tutors at Bristol University.

Geoscientist 19.11 November 2009

No doubt there are those who would cite this fact as reason to close them down, but I owe my introduction to geology to what used to be called “extra mural” classes at my local university. Now referred to as Lifelong Learning (LL), these admirable programmes of lectures and field excursions for the general public used to be part of every UK university’s outreach programme. Each institution would publish annually an eagerly awaited prospectus of courses on offer in the coming year. There would follow an exciting scramble for places, for which one was expected to pay a reasonable sub. Facilities were provided by the institution.

Sadly, because the “product” of such classes (positive publicity, good public relations, enlightenment) is hard for universities to quantify to the satisfaction of the moronic bean-counting processes to which they are in thrall, LL courses now find themselves under threat everywhere. This has suddenly become serious because the Government – represented by its creature the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) – recently decided to withdraw funding from “equivalent or lower level qualifications” (ELQs), leaving cash-strapped institutions to fund them unaided.

Latest casualties are the successful geology courses run at the University of Bristol. Because such decisions devolve onto individual universities, the decision to close courses will tend to depend upon wider funding issues. Courses may therefore find themselves forced to close even though they may have been very popular. Such is the case at Bristol, where geology courses have seen annual enrolments of more than 600 in recent years. The decision to close has been reached, according to a university spokeswoman, “with deep regret”.

Nothing daunted, some course tutors at Bristol - Nick Chidlaw, David Green, Rodney Hillier and Bill Dixon - have decided to soldier on alone. Their new, independent courses are now being advertised online (see link below) under a rather sad “thank you to all our customers” notice, announcing the closure decision.

Chidlaw told Geoscientist: “It’s very regrettable that HEFCE has caused this – I have taught LL geological courses continuously for Bristol for 21 years, and there has always been a clear and sustained interest from the public – attracting people from all over the country. People attending these courses come from many walks of life, and learn a great deal about the geological past and geoconservation in the company of like-minded people. It’s clear that LL provision goes towards informing and enriching their lives.”

The support of local organisations has been crucial. Says Chidlaw: “The West of England GA and the Bath Geological Society have been exemplary in contacting their membership and putting details on their blogs quickly I’d also like to emphasise the support from Professor Mike Benton, who has long supported and organised the Lifelong Learning Programme in his Department.”

This magazine applauds their efforts and wishes them all the best for the future.