The government is risking the future of UK science education with its reluctance to address concerns over masters courses raised in talks on the Bologna process, according to physicists and chemists.
In correspondence between the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry and higher education minister Alan Johnson, the scientists argue that the UK set-up of the four-year integrated MPhys and MChem degrees is unlikely to be acceptable under Bologna.
The Bologna declaration, signed by 29 countries including the UK in 1999, will create a common framework for degrees, based on credits.
Its preference is for three years of undergraduate study followed by two years at masters level and a further three at doctoral level.
The UK's integrated masters degrees would be undermined, leaving graduates unable to study overseas and UK universities unable to recruit postgraduate students and even academics.
UK academics were amazed that January's higher education white paper made no mention of the Bologna process and its possible effects.
Peter Main, director of education and science at the IoP, said the institute was getting increasingly frustrated by the lack of direction from government.
He said: "The whole thing is meant to be in place by the end of the decade - that's not so long in academic terms. Departmental attitudes are that until government says jump, they won't change. If this is not sorted out in the next couple of years, it is hard to see how it will be by 2010.
"That the white paper doesn't even mention the Bologna agreement but is a model for five years hence beggars belief. Alan Johnson's response is difficult to believe. These European policies will affect domestic policy."
Professor Main said that many of the researchers who attended a joint IoP and RSC seminar on Bologna in October had been unaware of the issues.
"We mustn't find ourselves in the situation where all engineering and physics and chemistry departments don't know what to do with their courses," he said.
"It's a bit of a Little England complex. Our education system has always been different from the rest of Europe. The idea that you can get a PhD six years after leaving school is extraordinary in Europe where it takes eight or nine years."
The IoP and RSC first wrote to education secretary Charles Clarke in August expressing concern that the Bologna process was being largely ignored in the UK.
Mr Johnson replied, saying: "The focus in the higher education white paper was mainly on the policy agenda. It was not intended to cover the detailed areas of building the new European higher education areas that Bologna goes into."