'Closed' centre launches new MSc

February 4, 2000

A postgraduate centre, effectively closed by Edinburgh University in 1996, has launched the first MSc course of the third millennium, a stone's-throw from its former premises.

The Centre for Human Ecology (CHE), set up in the early 1970s, parted company with the university after months of turmoil, during which an incoming director resigned after only six months, the MSc course was suspended and staff contracts were not renewed.

But there was a strong feeling among CHE's staff and students that it was still viable. It has never interrupted its public lecture series, operating from a range of venues including an organic farm in Fife and a six-month "virtual" stint through email chat groups.

It has won support from the European Social Fund, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and a range of other charities. It has new premises in an Edinburgh yoga centre as well as a new funding stream - Pounds 40,000 in initial student fees.

On January 10 its MSc in human ecology was reborn following institutional and course accreditation from the Open University Validation Service.

Academic director Brendan Hill stresses that the course is unique in the United Kingdom, covering more than environmental sciences and environmental studies. The traditional pigeon-holing of academic disciplines may be part of the problem, he said, and students are therefore encouraged to ask "completely fundamental" questions.

"It would be very tempting and easy to go down the route of just giving the students the environmentalist view," said Mr Hill. "But it's important that they think critically and we're very careful to expose them to a variety of viewpoints. We had anti-GM protesters speaking during our public lectures last year, and also a speaker from Monsanto."

CHE believes some of the modules are unique: "new economics", for example, which is not in but about economics, and "ecopsychology", which covers the psychology of people's relationship with nature.

Ulrich Loening, CHE's director at Edinburgh and now founding chair of the new academic board, said: "We try to integrate the different sectors of thinking of society's relation to the planet's ecology. The central thrust is that clearly the industrial world, and through it the developing world, has become unsustainable, even though there is environmental clean-up here and there.

"Humans are living off natural capital and not natural income. How does one think out a view of creating a strategy to make the environment sustainable and positively regenerative? That's a new move for civilisation, because all past civilisations have destroyed their environment."

The new course, which also has postgraduate certificate and diploma exit points, and can be taken in one year full-time and two years part-time, has attracted 22 students. They range from a systems analyst and a financial adviser to a merchant seaman and a chemist. They come from the United Kingdom, Hungary, Canada, France and Sudan.

The MSc, taught by four core staff and eight tutors on contracts, is a hybrid between conventional courses and the Open University style. The standard 30-hour modules are taught as short residential courses, backed by guided reading, tutorials and group conference calls. There are currently 12 full time equivalent students, but CHE expects substantial expansion, with up to 25 FTEs in the short term.

Dr Hill said the hallmark of a genuinely vocational course was to help students find their niche in life.

"The feedback from former students is that although there's no way of predicting where they'll end up, they feel very strongly that where they end up is where they want to be."

CHE has a good student employment record and jobs range from setting up the environmental management consultancy arm of KPMG in South Africa to running a soup kitchen in New York. Many of its students are mature, and Dr Loening said CHE's courses aimed to give them two openings: to return to their original profession with a very broad ecological understanding, or to be "ecology advisers, motivators and interpreters".

"We get very motivated students," he said.

"The bigger challenge will be to have people who are not motivated, and for us to motivate them."

Information on CHE can be found at http://www.che.ac.uk.

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