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Masters Classes

Academics are promoting masters engineering courses as a way to fill the skills gap discovers
Tiffany Holland.

The thought of being a university student again may fill you with a wishful sense of longing, evoking distant memories of three years of eating, drinking, sleeping and, in between a hectic social life, the odd thought of doing some studying.

Now, with more opportunities for further study, and potentially improved job prospects, more and more graduate engineers are returning to college.

Many universities offer a range of specialist engineering masters courses. "The purpose of a Master of Science (MSc) is that you get up to speed," says emeritus professor and senior research investigator at Imperial College London John Burland.

"There are certain fields where you have to have an MSc, for example, geotechnics. Many firms now want you to have this qualification and so they are very important in particular areas."
Imperial offers full-time, one-year MSc courses, involving two terms of intense lecturing with coursework followed by a large project, chosen independently by the student.

Burland says this can be a study on a topic, design or even literature and students are given space to be creative.

A part-time option is also on offer as the university tries hard to accommodate people with full-time jobs. However, Burland believes this arrangement can sometimes be difficult for students: "We much prefer students to do, what we call, total immersion [a full-time course] because they get more out of it. It can be quite difficult for students to split their thinking between the needs of their boss, the firm and their studies."

But if full-time study is not an option, Lancaster University offers some two year masters courses on a part-time basis. These mix distance learning with conventional lectures meaning that full-time lessons are attended for only three-and-a-half weeks per year.

"We wanted more face-to-face contact than distance learning courses because many found these unsuitable," explains postgraduate admissions tutor Professor Roger Kemp. "But at the same time it is better for the company because students don't need a lot of time off."

If you are worried that university is only for the young, think again. "We do have a good number of mature students who study the MSc courses," says Burland. "Mature students see the relevance of lectures much more readily than new graduates. They tend to lead the class, raising the game for the rest of the students and so they make such a difference to the courses." This is true at Lancaster University where three of its key part-time masters courses are mostly filled with mature students.

Imperial offers 25 civil engineering masters courses that cover a range of subjects. Students are allowed to tailor courses by choosing modules so they learn exactly what they want to.

Lancaster University offers part-time masters courses in safety engineering, low carbon energy, nuclear decommissioning and environmental clean up. Kemp says: "These ones are really focused on industry and designed specifically for what industry wanted."

Nuclear site Sellafield's presence is felt in Lancaster University's curriculum, for example with its decommissioning course, which primarily focuses on nuclear power clean-up.

There has been a huge demand for this course in industry and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority recognises this by offering sponsorship opportunities for some of its students.

Lancaster has also recently received a £750,000 grant from The Lloyds Register Educational Trust for a nuclear-specialist university chair.

Meanwhile, future masters courses could become even more focused on nuclear and renewable energy. "The nuclear plants are going to need thousands of engineers. Energy, as a whole, is going to be the big engineering focus in the future," says Kemp.

With excellent pass rates it seems both universities have been successful in equipping their students with the relevant skills and knowledge in the industry. It is true that studying for a masters can be a much less carefree student experience than studying for a degree. But at least second time around it is less likely you will have to live in poverty if you can get your employers' support.

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