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Higher Education Commission: Postgraduate Education

The Higher Education Commission has launched a report on postgraduate education. You can read the terms of reference for the inquiry at

Submitted 5 April 2012

This submission has been produced jointly by five organisations which, between them, represent a significant part of the UK geoscience community, spanning academia, industry, government and the student population. They are:
  1. The Geological Society of London (GSL) is the national learned and professional body for geoscience, with over 10,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government, with a wide range of perspectives and views on policy-relevant geoscience, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-technical audiences.
  2. The Committee of Heads of University Geosciences Departments (CHUGD) is the subject association of Geoscience (geology, applied geology, Earth science, geophysics, geochemistry and some environmental science) departments/schools based within universities in the British Isles. It promotes discussion and exchange of information between departments and provides a point of contact between these and professional, government and quality control agencies.
  3. The British Geological Survey (BGS) is a world leading geological survey and the United Kingdom's premier centre for earth science information and expertise. The BGS provides expert services and impartial advice in all areas of geoscience. Its client base is drawn from the public and private sectors both in the UK and internationally.
  4. The Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain (PESGB) represents the national community of Earth scientists working in the oil and gas industry, with over 5,000 members worldwide. The objective of the Society is to promote, for the public benefit, education in the scientific and technical aspects of petroleum exploration. To achieve this objective the PESGB makes regular charitable disbursements, holds monthly lecture meetings in London and Aberdeen and both organises and sponsors other conferences, seminars, workshops, field trips and publications.
  5. The British Geophysical Association (BGA) represents geophysicists in academia and industry who are members of the Royal Astronomical Society or the Geological Society of London. Its role is to promote geophysics and knowledge about geophysics at national and international levels.
Since the start of 2011, our organisations have worked together when appropriate in communicating with government, parliamentary committees, HEFCE and Research Councils on matters relating to national geoscience skills needs, and Higher Education policy and funding.

Significant numbers of trained geologists and other geoscientists in a wide range of specialisms will be needed to ensure future wealth generation and economic innovation, the delivery of resources (including energy) and services to the UK population and industry, and to meet known policy challenges over the next generation, particularly as we seek to decarbonise the energy system and the economy. Our organisations are concerned that the ability of the UK Higher Education system to meet these vital national skills needs may be severely jeopardized by policy decisions now being made regarding the allocation of funding for university teaching at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, in the context of the known global undersupply of trained geoscientists.

Our principle concern is the withdrawal of public financial support for taught Masters programmes, combined with increased levels of student debt, and the effect this will have on the UK’s postgraduate geoscience training capacity and the supply of skills to industry.

Q1: How well does the current postgraduate system meet the needs of businesses? How can the system become more responsive?

i. Demand for, and utilisation of, postgraduate skills. The GSL, working with the other signatory organizations to this document, has recently established a Geoscience Skills Forum. Its purpose is to gather evidence regarding national geoscience skills needs, focusing initially on hydrocarbons, engineering geology and geotechnics, environmental geoscience and hydrogeology, to identify current and potential future skills gaps, and then to stimulate work to address these needs across industry, academia and government. Our initial evidence gathering is not complete, but it is apparent that taught applied Masters programmes are highly valued in many areas of geoscience employment, and that in some sectors an applied MSc is effectively a prerequisite for entry to the profession. A three-year BSc, regarded as a general education in geology / geoscience, is followed by a year of vocational training in a specialism such as petroleum geology, geophysics, hydrogeology, or engineering geology. This provides the essential basic specialist training on which companies can build when taking on new recruits. In some sectors, such as hydrocarbons, there are very limited opportunities for those with a BSc only; most companies take postgraduate qualifications as their minimum entry level, with Masters graduates constituting a large proportion of this intake. There is also some evidence that, for those few gaining employment with a BSc, there is little prospect of career advancement. We expect to have completed our initial evidence gathering by the end of June, and would be pleased to share the results with the Higher Education Commission.

ii. Frameworks for dialogue between businesses and HE. Accreditation of degree programmes by the GSL is a valuable existing mechanism for such dialogue, and for ensuring that industry’s needs are addressed by universities. Historically, accreditation has mostly been at undergraduate programme level, and almost all undergraduate geoscience programmes in the UK are now accredited, but uptake at Masters level is now growing too. Many university geoscience departments actively engage with industry, through local companies and networks (including GSL Regional Groups), and see imparting and developing professional skills as an important part of their degree programmes (both at undergrad and postgraduate level). BGS has active partnerships with many universities, also providing invaluable access to knowledge and data for both education and research purposes. In future, the Geoscience Skills Forum will bring together industry, academia and government to identify skills needs and problems; highlight points in the ‘skills pipeline’ requiring particular attention; and seek to stimulate actions to address these. It is intended to provide support both to academia and to industry.

iii. The role of government. Our organisations are committed to playing our part in ensuring the health of postgraduate Higher Education in geoscience, and that it remains fit for purpose for the needs of industry. But we cannot do this alone. We are seriously concerned that so little attention has been paid to postgraduate education in the 2011 HE White Paper and related policy and implementation documents from BIS and HEFCE thus far, especially given the vital role of taught Masters for vocational geoscience training. There is little to suggest that government is looking at national skills needs and seeking to make education policy in a way which addresses these, other than marginally at undergraduate level through limited support for selected high-cost SIVS (Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects). There is an inconsistency here with immigration policy – the list of shortage occupations for the purpose of Tier 2 migrant status includes a number of geoscience specialisms, including geoscientist, geophysicist, hydrogeologist and engineering geologist. We know of no sources of evidence to indicate the extent to which UK plc is substituting for UK-based Masters training capacity by importing those with Masters equivalent skills and training. But to the extent that it is happening, this is unlikely to be a sustainable approach. Despite the large number of geoscientists being trained in emerging economies, there is not expected to be any surplus available for ‘export’, according to research on the global geoscience workforce carried out by the American Geosciences Institute1. China is undersupplied by 30% in comparison to its projected needs, for example, and India is neither importing nor exporting trained geoscientists. UK-based Masters programmes are a significant source of capability and skills to both emerging and established economies. The loss of government support often means that overseas students fill places that would more likely have been offered to UK based student had funding been available. The loss of funding also results in unfilled places on some MSc programmes.

iv. Professional qualifications. The GSL awards the status of Chartered Geologist to appropriately qualified candidates. This is a designation rather than a qualification, based on peer review assessment of competence, but it is an important stage in UK geoscientists’ professional formation, particularly in areas of environmental and engineering geoscience. Completion of an accredited degree programme reduces the minimum qualifying period of professional experience which candidates are required to have before applying for Chartership.

Q2a: What is required for the UK to maintain its ability to attract and retain high-quality international students and international researchers?

i. Limits on visas for non-EU researchers are a threat to geoscience research, a field in which the main industrial and academic players work internationally. A particular concern is the decision to restrict the time that Tier 1 entrants may remain in the UK to five years. This may deter the most talented researchers from coming to work here, which may impact on postgraduate teaching as well as on research.

Q2c: How might UK-domiciled students be encouraged to engage in doctoral study?

i. Prospective doctoral students will be attracted by opportunities to join sustainable well-funded research groups and research communities, addressing societal challenges and exciting questions in fundamental science. Effective information about demand for PhD graduates in industry is also a potential motivator. Research Councils’ funding of PhD studentships at a sufficient level is an essential factor.

Q2d: In what areas can UK postgraduate provision be considered outstanding internationally?

i. The quality of UK postgraduate training in a wide range of geoscience specialisms, especially from certain universities, is internationally renowned. Increased and sustained funding is essential to maintaining this reputation.

ii. The GSL, PESGB and BGA made a submission in April 2011 to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on taught Masters training in petroleum geoscience. In support of this submission, we consulted the directors of 12 MSc programmes at 9 universities (that is, the great majority of vocational geology and geophysics postgraduate degrees in the UK related to the energy industry). They reported that of over 300 places on their courses, a significant majority was taken by independently funded foreign students. This supports the thesis that these courses are highly regarded internationally.

Q3: How well does current practice support smooth transitions from postgraduate education into industry and academia?

i. As already noted , there is strong demand from industry for those with taught MSc degrees in geoscience. Our impression from conversations with those in other disciplines is that this preference is particularly marked in geoscience.

ii. Four-year integrated Masters/undergraduate degrees (such as MSci or MGeol) can provide students with the opportunity to acquire a broader general education in geoscience or to study an area in greater intellectual depth. They are also regarded as a good training for those wishing to go on to postgraduate research. But they are not viewed by industry as a substitute for the taught applied MSc, as they do not provide the same vocational training. There is some anecdotal evidence that a few institutions may be promoting Masters/undergraduate integrated programmes as equivalent to the three year BSc plus an applied postgraduate taught Masters. This may be to the detriment of students, if they subsequently find that they must undertake a further Masters degree if they are to enter their chosen field. However, an obvious temptation of the integrated Masters/undergraduate degree to students is that they can get a student loan for the duration of the course – this is not the case for the separate MSc (see also Q6). Employers recruiting those with only an undergraduate degree tend to prefer graduates from four-year integrated programmes over those from three-year BScs.

iii. A number of MSc programmes offer their students the opportunity to carry out a project working with industry, often jointly supervised by the university department and the company. These collaborations are highly valued by all parties involved. Some students subsequently take up employment at the company which supported their project. In general, the summer projects undertaken by vocational MSc students are intensive, and help students to develop time management and report preparation skills to a much greater extent than projects within undergraduate degrees.

iv. The UK is also an exporter of geoscience skills, particularly in the mining sector, and some of the brightest students gaining high-quality postgraduate degrees in the UK (whether domestic or overseas students) then leave to work for companies in Australia, South America and Africa. There are also attractive opportunities in many EU and other countries for BSc, MSc and PhD graduates.

Q4: How can postgraduate provision in the UK be made more accessible for students from less advantaged backgrounds?

i. Learning in the field is an essential component of all undergraduate geoscience programmes, and for the great majority of Masters programmes. Geoscience is not only an experimental science, but depends on observing geological phenomena in situ. This can include not just field mapping, but also development of skills such as field deployment of geophysical instruments and field sampling. Many institutions cover the costs of fieldwork rather than pass these on to students, in order that this is not a disincentive to study geoscience. This makes geoscience, as a classroom, laboratory and field-based subject, relatively more expensive for institutions to teach. Students may also incur part of this additional cost. Government and funding bodies should fully recognise the costs and value of fieldwork, and should ensure that funding is allocated in such a way that students who choose to study geoscience (and institutions which teach it) are not financially disadvantaged.

Q5: What impact will the changes to undergraduate provision outlined in the recent Higher Education White Paper have on the postgraduate sector?

i. Our main concern regarding the impact of policy for undergraduate provision on the postgraduate sector is not over implications of changes announced in the HE White Paper itself, but rather the increase in student fees, which will be in the region of £9k for most undergraduate geoscience degrees. This will result in those graduating from BSc programmes emerging with much higher debts than was previously the case. Feedback from students suggest that this is likely to dissuade many from taking on additional debt by studying for a further year, especially since student loans are not available to those on MSc programmes (see also Q6). Together with the withdrawal of NERC MSc studentships (and EPSRC support for almost all MSc programmes), the impact on the number of UK students enrolling on Masters programmes is likely to be significant.

ii. The net effects of multiple concurrent recent continuing changes in various parts of the Higher Education system are uncertain, and are likely to remain so for some time. This is disruptive to institutions and individuals responsible for delivering postgraduate programmes, and may disincentivise students from further study. It may also be detrimental to attracting and retaining the best educators and researchers at our universities.

Q6: How should postgraduate education be funded?

i. Public funding to support the delivery of taught MSc courses has historically been delivered through the Research Councils. This has rapidly been withdrawn, with the abolition of NERC MSc studentships from 2011 (the ‘parent’ Research Council for most geoscience disciplines), and the phasing out of EPSRC Collaborative Training Accounts by 2013. Already, many MSc students are funded by industrial sponsors, predominantly large companies. However, there is concern that the loss of public funding is not likely to be substituted by further funding from industry, as individual graduates may not be retained in employment by their sponsoring company for long enough to justify the investment. This financial risk is magnified for smaller companies, for which the loss of investment in one employee is relatively greater, and which in addition do not benefit from the smoothing effect of employing more graduates. While it can be argued that such investment would benefit industry as a whole, there is a serious risk of market failure if companies cannot reliably appropriate the benefits. Short term decisions to withhold very modest levels of public investment may have very long term and financially significant effects. The data we gathered in 2011 regarding petroleum geoscience Masters programmes indicated that NERC previously funded about 30 students per year (just over 10% of the total number of NERC MSc studentships at that time), at a cost in the order of £500k. This was seen by industry and academia as contributing significantly to meeting the skills needs and ensuring the continuing success of the UK’s multi-billion pound oil and gas industry – particularly important at a time when the population in many key specialisms is ageing, meaning that much of the existing skills base will be lost through retirement.

ii. The risk of market failure at a national level is exacerbated by the global nature of the skills market, and of the largest companies which are most likely to fund MSc students. For example, this year BG will withdraw funding for all but two UK Masters students, refocusing it principally in Brazil. Companies will invest in training where they anticipate the greatest rewards from the investment they make. It is not such multi-national companies which stand to suffer from such decisions, but UK plc.

iii. As noted already, the majority of students, at least in petroleum geoscience MSc programmes, are from overseas. This suggests that the financial sustainability of many programmes is dependent on continuing similar levels of overseas student enrolment (which in turn depends on immigration policy, among other factors).

iv. A number of MSc programmes are already closing, and this trend is likely to continue. Numerically small specialisms which are nonetheless vital to industry are particularly vunerable, and training capacity may disappear entirely. For example, micropalaeontology has a key role in exploration for hydrocarbons, and also in drilling wells for their safe extraction. While even large oil companies might only employ a few micropalaeontologists (or will purchase modest amounts of consultancy in this area), their community represents a valuable element of national capability. The last UK MSc programme in micropalaeontology closed a few years ago. A new one will be launched this year at Birmingham, but its long-term viability will depend on its ability to recruit students, and securing funding will be key to this. Where there is an ageing population of skilled people, the disappearance of MSc programmes could lead to near-total loss of such national capability in the next few years – this is a real danger in many specialisms.

v. The PESGB has started a programme to fund Masters students, and is seeking to grow this over the next few years. It is also working with smaller companies to develop a scheme to pool contributions towards postgraduate training. However, this is unlikely to reach the level of the funding previously provided by NERC. Moreover, such schemes are unlikely to be replicable in other geoscience-dependent sectors, such as hydrogeology and engineering geology, which are less well capitalised than the hydrocarbons industry.

vi. It is our view that government should fund studentships for vocational taught MSc programmes, for the benefit of UK industry, at a level equivalent to that previously provided by the Research Councils. Their former responsibility for distributing this funding was a matter of historical accident, and it is understandable that its continuation was not seen as a priority in the context of their primary purpose of supporting research. For this reason, it would be preferable for government funding of vocational MSc students or programmes to
be routed through HEFCE, the purpose and role of which is more compatible with this function. If government will not provide such funding, despite the excellent return which could be expected on the investment, tax breaks and other incentives should be offered to industry, to encourage them to fund more postgraduate training in the UK. Mechanisms for the pooling of industry resources for this purpose should also be incentivised. As a bare minimum, it is essential that students have access to sources of finance to fund their own MSc degrees, without being landed with a large quick-pay debt on top of the student debt accumulated during their undergraduate studies. (This is currently the case – the best loan options available to MSc students are Professional and Career Development Loans.) Preferably this should be achieved by extending the student loan system to cover stand-alone Masters degrees.

vii. As noted already, our organisations collected evidence about MSc programmes in petroleum geoscience last year. CHUGD and GSL will be gathering similar evidence regarding geoscience MSc programmes more generally over the next couple of months. We will seek to identify the range of MScs on offer; which are in core subjects, which are vocational, and which more marginal; the proportion of UK and overseas applicants/students; how are they funded; and which programmes are considered vulnerable (recognising that institutions may be sensitive about revealing this information). We would be pleased to share the results of this exercise.


  1. American Geological Institute / International Union of Geological Sciences. 2011. Global Change Faces the Geoscience Profession. Paper from AGI/IUGS workforce study, published in First Break Recruitment Special (European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers), 6pp.