Academic values

Northampton University is looking to build upon existing expertise and establish itself as a centre of excellence for waste management training. Maxine Perella finds out more

When people think of the University of Northampton, I want them to think of waste,” says Dr Nigel Freestone, head of the University’s division of environmental science. “When an employer sees an application form from somebody who has graduated from here, they will hopefully want to interview them because they know that person is going to be good.”

Creating a centre of excellence for waste management training at Northampton is a quest close to Dr Freestone’s heart. The university is well known within the waste industry, offering a range of waste management qualifications aimed at undergraduates including a HNC, foundation degree and honours degree.

However Dr Freestone acknowledges that “very few people make a conscious decision to enter the waste industry” and the University is now starting to dip its toes into the postgraduate market at certificate – and possible diploma – level.

With universities like Leeds and Southampton already offering masters levels in waste management, Northampton is carving a niche for itself by developing one-off, tailormade modules which focus on specific areas such as hazardous waste management. Students who complete these modules can be awarded credits which can be put towards obtaining a formal qualification.

For those already working in the industry, Dr Freestone says this career development route is an increasingly popular option. Crucially, these modules offer distance learning – a feature which Dr Freestone says is unique to his department – allowing students to access lecture and teaching materials remotely.

“You have to be disciplined to do distance learning,” he warns. “We try to ensure that we talk to people before they enrol on these courses so they know what it entails – distance learning can be an isolating experience for some and a lot of distance learning providers suffer from a huge drop out rate.”

However, this isn’t the case at Northampton which has a pass rate of over 90%.

Skills on the job

Dr Freestone has also developed a waste management framework based on accreditation of prior learning (APL). There are different types of APL, but the one most relevant to the waste industry is accreditation of prior experiental learning (APEL), which recognises learning from life or work experience as opposed to a taught course.

The APL framework can benefit, for example, those working in waste management facilities who have certificates of technical competence (COTC) issued by the Waste Management Industry Training & Advisory Board (WAMITAB).

Participants who wish to enrol onto Northampton’s HNC waste management course can submit a portfolio of evidence which they use for their COTC and – if it meets the university’s criteria – be granted exemptions (a type of credit) based upon their portfolio, which can speed up the process of gaining an award such as a HNC.

Dr Freestone has spent much time promoting APEL, believing it to be the way forward. “The days of the traditional student are numbered,” he says. “Courses increasingly need to meet both the needs of industry and the individual.”

He adds that the face of higher education has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. “It used to be based on traditional academic values, but now there’s greater emphasis on skills development. Students are expected to be able to determine how they can learn and how they can change their needs as required.”

While postgraduate modules are growing in popularity, undergraduate numbers are in decline – the department’s undergraduate traditional full-time taught route courses attract only between 8 to 10 students a year, compared to 120 students for the HNC. But attracting young people into waste management is a perennial challenge when entrenched public perceptions have to be overcome.

“We have a strange approach to waste,” observes Dr Freestone. “If you look at different cultures throughout the world, the people that deal with waste – within a class system – are the lowest. While this situation exists, you are always going to have this hierachy in terms of acceptability.”

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