Looking differently at postgraduate training

Both the private and public sector elements of the water sector depend on a reliable supply of well trained university graduates to maintain and develop their skills and knowledge bases.

In the case of postgraduate training, the ability of colleges and universities to deliver this working capital has been compromised over the past decade. Rising student debt, good job prospects for numerate graduates, and significant restructuring in the UK water sector have all played their part in reducing the number of UK students registering on relevant masters level courses.

People are postponing, and seeking new ways of engaging with, postgraduate training. No blame is to be apportioned for this rapid decline in UK postgraduate numbers – it is simply a reflection of economic and social trends. However, the challenge to both the tertiary education and water sectors is real enough: how can we create opportunities to attract well qualified candidates into postgraduate training?

Universities need to be sensitive to the needs of students and potential employers. Students are increasingly looking for intensive courses with an emphasis on skills development (including transferable skills), plenty of contact with practitioners and opportunities to cross disciplinary boundaries.

Potential employers

Potential employers want graduates who know the organisation and its operations, have appropriate technical skills, are adaptable, and have the confidence to quickly be able to work in small teams or alone. The practical application of innovative techniques is an increasingly important need.

Universities are finding different ways of addressing these challenges, many of which are tailored to the needs of the sector being served by a specific course. The School of Water Sciences at Cranfield University has developed a collaborative model of postgraduate advanced technical education with the water sector, called the MTech.

It is an industry-based programme with full-time students spending more than 17 months on relevant research projects with their sponsoring company. Students (who are selected jointly by the university and the industrial sponsor) study core technical specialism for three months at the university, and then move to industry for 12 months to work on a series of research projects.

Students are supported with an academic and industrial supervisor in addition to teaching materials and a web-based course support system. They then do four more months university study before the final research stage with their sponsoring company. Companies are asked to fund these studentships at a cost of £30k (£15k a year).

The MTech programme is accredited by CIWEM with the intention for graduates to progress to Chartered Engineer (CEng) status. Benefits to students include:

  • An advanced-level MSc
  • Studentship to cover the costs of the programme plus a notebook PC
  • No increase in student debt
  • Relevant industrial experience likely to lead directly to employment in the sector
  • Progression to Chartered Engineer (CEng) status

Benefits to companies sponsoring a student include:

  • Recruitment of numerate graduates without increasing employee costs
  • Collaborative research projects with access to university expertise
  • Developing graduates early in their professional careers
  • 17 months of company-based work

The MTech is equivalent to a double masters degree. A course advisory committee ensures the course is aligned to industry needs. Members include Thames Water, the Environment Agency, Anglian Water, Energy & Utility Sector Skills Council, Severn Trent Water, Black & Veatch Consulting, United Utilities, Biwater, MWH and the Institution of Water Officers.

Sponsored places in the first year of operation were double the expected number. As with all new awards, the job market value of an MTech degree is as yet unproven (one can imagine an interviewer peering over his glasses at a nervous job candidate and suspiciously enquiring: ‘What exactly did you have to do to be awarded an MTech then?’)

Perhaps the single most important advantage for those emerging from the MTech experience and their sponsors is that graduates will be able to hit the ground running when they enter the employment market.

Skills base

As well as having a sound understanding of the engineering and scientific principles controlling the design, interconnection and operation of processes for water quality improvement, they are able to: select processes appropriate for the required water quality improvement, identify product water quality requirements for specific applications, and solve specific design problems for the improvement of water quality. They will also have done independent research studies involving project planning, the development of new technical skills, the critical evaluation of literature, evaluation of results, and discussion of findings.

The water industry has a high demand for process-literate graduates who can design, engineer and manage treatment plant and associated processes. The realignment of costs and benefits achieved by the MTech programme is characteristic of the type of change needed if UK higher education is to continue to support excellence and innovation in the water sector.

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