#LoveHE: Bin there, done that

A dustman for 12 years, octogenarian Ernie Sharp was more than qualified to do a degree in waste management

August 19, 2010

University wasn't in my world when I was growing up and I never thought that one day I would have letters after my name. I left school at 14 without any formal qualifications because I had to earn money.

After the war, I worked for Lewisham council. I was asked to help out on refuse collection and my philosophy is always to say yes, so for 12 years I was carrying dustbins. I went to night school to help my son when he went to grammar school.

After I'd become a foreman, the opportunity came up for me to do a diploma on day release. This led to more promotions and I got among the educated classes. I always say it is because I applied common sense and wasn't afraid to work. I retired in 1983.

When the Institution of Wastes Management was applying for its charter status in the early 2000s, it needed 75 per cent of its members to have a degree.

There was also a sense that those members without a degree would be second-class citizens. It may have been me, but in my own mind there was a stigma that I was a dustman.

The institution said they might allow people who already had the diploma to go on a degree course. I said: "When you do it, I'll be your guinea pig."

I had to stick to what I said, so in 2002 I enrolled for a BSc in waste management and pollution control at the University of Northampton.

I worked from home and I found it reasonably easy because I'd been working 40-odd years in waste management. I graduated in 2005 with a 2:1. I was disappointed not to get a first, but people told me that was very rare.

When I finished, I was joking with the professor about what came next. He said it was a master's. Knowing nothing about it, I said: "That's a failed PhD."

I wanted to do a PhD, but he said it would take six years, and at my age anything might happen. I'd still like to do one but my wife is ill so I wouldn't have the time to concentrate on it.

But I enjoyed doing the MPhil. It was a two-year course, which I also did from home. I researched how the London boroughs were complying with European Union directives on waste management. It was a new world and an awful lot of work. A couple of times I said to the professor: "You've backed the wrong horse."

They made such a fuss when I passed the viva that I felt a bit embarrassed. We went to the pub and had food, and the media wanted to interview me. I felt a bit of a fraud: maybe it's because I'm an independent old man and so many people have helped me.

I still don't know how to work the computer properly, for instance. My son edited my work after I finished it and the team at the university were very helpful.

But getting my degrees has kept me occupied and out of mischief. It has given me something to keep my mind active. Other people I know retired and just withered away; I said that wasn't going to happen to me. I only retired from refereeing football two years ago.

The degrees have also boosted my confidence and made me feel better about myself. I feel lucky, and I need a larger hat because I'm up with the nobs now, aren't I?

When I go to institution meetings now, I have the feeling I can say what I want. I'm probably getting a bit of a name for being controversial because I've always got questions. Before, they probably thought I was a silly old man, but I can't be that now, can I?

Ernie Sharp, 88, has just graduated with an MPhil in waste management from the University of Northampton.

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