Masters: a flexible approach

A recent surge in demand for environmental education has dramatically expanded the number of courses available and revolutionised the ways to study them: part-time, distance learning, interactive... Helen Sloman, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) Programme development officer, explores the possibilities.

Why the recent surge of interest in environmental education? Several reasons. The environmental field is one with ever-changing goalposts, plus there are major financial incentives to get it right first time and thus produce savings through waste minimisation and the accumulation of expertise to complete projects in-house, instead of hiring consultants.

Design structure
Two years ago, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) introduced the new 'Masters Training Package' scheme in recognition of industry's need for continuing professional development training. This enabled much greater flexibility in the standard MSc structure and started a revolution in course design.

Distance learning courses have also gained popularity, promising convenience and often being the cheaper option. IChemE's new learning portal aims to 'revolutionise the world of e-learning'. However, varying standards have been reported and computer packages lack the social interaction and motivation gained from classroom teaching. It can be hard to concentrate without the discipline imposed by attending a course, and with the rapid changes in environmental regulation, courses purchased on CD Rom may date very quickly.

Reality is that people tend to learn best by practising, interacting and sharing experiences, and this is something that computer-based learning does not provide. Networking opportunities are a benefit students certainly appreciate.

"Having the whole week as opposed to several days allowed the participants to immerse themselves completely in the course without the competing demands and distraction of work," said one Environmental Management and Technology (EMT) graduate from Southern Water, "and allow us to forge valuable relationships with other course participants."

Universities can apply for funding to help finance a variety of postgraduate training courses, whether in the form of traditional full-time courses, part-time, modular training designed for professionals working full-time or to develop distance learning courses.

At least a dozen environmental Masters courses have secured funding to date, including UMIST's EMT Programme which received approximately half a million pounds. Some of this money goes towards financing 60 bursaries that reduce the cost of training to MSc students, about a third of which have been awarded to date. The remainder of the UMIST's EPSRC award helps fund the running of the courses, which has enabled the introduction of several new course modules.

Regulation drivers
Regulatory change has spurred many businesses to seek training. Companies not previously covered under IPC and with limited experience of environmental regulation are now having to learn quickly how to deal with IPPC. Other pressures include OPRA (the Environment Agency's Operator and Pollution Risk Appraisal system) requirements and ISO 14001 accreditation, both of which require environmental training.

In addition, 'Investors in People' specifically requires accredited development of personnel. The regulatory requirement for environmental training is being tightened in environmental legislation and there is evidence that it is also being more rigorously prosecuted.

Business beware - more than one company has reportedly been fined recently for failing to adequately train employees with regard to their environmental management responsibilities. Showing commitment to training is not only important for staff, but for company economic well-being too.

Career progression
Relevant qualifications can also make a big difference to career progression, particularly since under the Engineering Council's SARTOR 97 requirements, new engineering graduates hoping eventually to gain chartered status (CEng registration) now have to demonstrate academic learning to accredited MEng(Hons) degree standard.

This means an equivalent of 12 months further study for those graduating this year with a BEng(Hons) degree. Completing a postgraduate MSc course - possibly in combination with work-based learning - can make a significant contribution towards satisfying this 'matching section' requirement.

One UMIST EMT graduate from MI Drilling Fluids, agrees with this, "The course has allowed me to advance my professional qualifications by achieving Chartered Chemist status MRSC from my previous LRSC membership of the Royal Society. I have also recently been promoted to a new position within the company. Although not directly related to my completing the UMIST EMT MSc course, it would probably not have happened had I not graduated."

There is now an overwhelming array of environmental training available, ranging from one day seminars to IEMA foundation courses to full MSc postgraduate qualifications.

UMIST's modular Environmental MSc Programme was created more than a decade ago to meet HM Inspectorate of Pollution's (an Environment Agency precursor) need for comprehensive, in-depth environmental training of inspectors. Today, the vast majority of our EMT MSc students work for industrial manufacturing companies, with most already having several years experience working in the environmental field.

About 95 per cent of UMIST EMT delegates are fully sponsored by their companies, who benefit from their employees being trained to MSc level without taking a career break.

Industrial focus
Delegates attend a series of week long, intensive courses, spread over a period of up to three years. Flexibility and industrial focus are important: students choose courses from a wide range of electives and learn from a variety of lecturers and visiting experts. Legal specialists, industry regulators and practising consultants are often included in this line-up.

As part of a small group, students discuss issues and practice their skills in case study exercises. For example, the EMS Auditing course involves carrying out a due diligence audit - researching a landfill site, carrying out an inspection, interviewing site personnel and writing an assessed report.

The 'contaminated land', 'best available techniques' and 'environmental impact assessment' modules are similarly hands on, or perhaps more aptly 'wellies-on'. After passing written exams, a dissertation project completes the MSc, usually based on some aspect of their job.

"My project for the MSc was the optimisation of wastewater treatment works," said one EMT graduate from Southern Water, "In its first year of its present format, the project identified about £188k in power and chemical savings, with about £102k per year savings actually achieved on an annualised basis."

It is also a common myth that an environmental science degree is required to be accepted for postgraduate environmental training.
UMIST accepts students with a wide range of first degrees, and for non-graduates has a progressive entry scheme, which takes work experience into account, and enables students to register firstly for a postgraduate certificate and work up to an MSc degree.

When times are hard it's tempting to cut the training budget, but companies that invest in environmental training clearly benefit. It's often left up to staff to push for the training they need. The opportunities are out there; it's just a case of taking them.



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