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.


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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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