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Water but not on the brain

mISSTEARHydrogeology taught master’s courses are under threat, says Bruce Misstear*

For the past 40 years, taught master’s courses in hydrogeology have played a vital role in the education of UK hydrogeologists, providing much of the groundwater expertise for the Environment Agency, water companies, consultants, contractors, universities and research institutes. The taught master’s programmes have also educated many hydrogeologists from outside the UK (including myself) and are held in high regard internationally – with all of the associated benefits to ‘UK plc’. Yet the future of the taught master’s courses is uncertain.

The first taught hydrogeology master’s course in UK was introduced in UCL in the 1960s, but closed down in 2001. In the past 20 years, hydrogeology master’s programmes have come and gone at Reading, East Anglia, Leeds and Cardiff universities. Still running are the hydrogeology master’s course at Birmingham (which started in the early 1970s), together with the more recent hydrogeology course at Strathclyde, the MSc in Contaminant Hydrogeology at Sheffield and an Applied Hydrogeology master’s in Newcastle.

The UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which previously funded a number of hydrogeology studentships, has withdrawn its support for such master’s courses, and currently gives priority to funding of doctoral students. While funding of research students is clearly important, there is also a need to support applied taught master’s programmes that produce well-rounded hydrogeologists with a broad skill-set in hydrogeology. The loss of funded studentships for taught master’s degrees means that even the long-established and highly-regarded Birmingham course could be vulnerable in the future. Aside from the importance of funding per se, the award of studentships was an indicator of the status of a course, and hence served as a recommendation to other potential students. Thus, loss of funding has far-reaching implications for the viability of a course.

The uncertain future for these courses is exacerbated by the increasing numbers of master’s-level ‘add-on’ primary degree courses (partly stimulated by the requirements of the Bologna Declaration, a 3+2-year two-cycle master’s being the norm in continental Europe, or 3+1-year MSci programme in UK) and also by the significant fees charged for primary degrees. Graduates are naturally more reluctant and less able to self-fund further education.

If we reach the point where insufficient hydrogeologists are graduating with high-quality master’s qualifications to supply the job market, the implications for the profession will be serious. Hydrogeological tasks, in government agencies and consultancies, may then increasingly be carried out by unqualified staff, resulting in poor quality work. We may see a continuation of a modern trend whereby field-data collection and drilling are not properly prioritised, or supervised, with greater reliance being placed on desk-bound studies, including the application - or misapplication - of hydrogeological software.

We cannot rely on market forces alone to support taught master’s programmes, as the industry is too fragmented. Government backing is essential to ensure the future of high quality hydrogeology education in this country.

* Hydrogeologist and Associate Professor, Trinity College Dublin