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Ten year crash

By: , Posted on: November 7, 2018

Ten years ago Lehman Bros collapsed, in what is usually thought to be the start of the financial crisis which has brought austerity to much of the world.

On a personal level, this and the oil price crisis which followed were major contributors towards my drift into academia. Austerity brought an end to government-funded resource minimisation consultancy contracts, and the oil price crash impacted hard on the training I used to do a lot of in the Middle East, mostly for O+G companies.

It was not that there was none of this kind of work left, but I found myself competing with two ends of the market: massive companies desperate enough for work to bid for the contracts they had previously considered too small for them (like those I had been doing) at zero margins, and trainers from less developed countries which O+G clients would previously have not considered.

Back when O+G companies had plenty of money they wanted UK, US German and Aussie engineers/trainers, even though the majority of the people who actually attended my training courses in the Gulf were the Indians, Pakistanis and Indonesians who mostly run O+G plants for the Emiratis and Qataris.

Bidding documents have become ever more onerous, as have terms and conditions, and rates for trainers and consultants have fallen through the floor. Globalisation has not just affected steel workers in America. I found myself competing with people who were willing to offer training for less than UK national minimum wage.

I had no more qualifications as a teacher or trainer than these competitors, so I decided to train in teaching. In the UK there is an entry-level qualification in teaching/training which is incredibly easy to obtain. The PTLLS – Level 3 Award in Education & Training is a level 3 BTEC, nominally equivalent to an “A-level”, (the exams taken prior to university entry in most of the UK).  However, you can do the course in 3 days, at a total cost of less than 500 pounds. It’s pretty basic, though this is the sole qualification many trainers have, and many don’t even have this.

I didn’t find it at all satisfactory, but the Royal Academy of Engineering kindly financed me to study for a Masters course in Higher Education which allowed me to attend university training courses for new lecturers as a sideline. I’d have gladly done the university’s course for new lecturers, except no-one allows you to go on this course unless you don’t really want to. It appears to be a course that people are contractually obliged to go on to prove that they have been sufficiently willing to engage with teaching.

Sufficiency in this context is a low hurdle. Most UK lecturer contracts require new lecturers to do just one module of this type of course over a number of years. I found that the overwhelming majority of my classmates, when I finally managed to get on this course, did the very minimum possible. They were ticking a box.

I wasn’t doing the course to get into academia, but teaching practice in the HE sector was required in order to complete the course, so I simply phoned the four closest universities with Chem Eng depts and asked if they’d like some lecturing. Two of them said yes pretty much straight away.

My material was well received by students, so as I completed the course, I was surprised to find that I was invited to apply for an Associate Professor role at one of them. With my engineering practice being quiet as a result of the slump, I thought I’d give it a go. Nottingham is also a lot closer to me than Qatar.

I’d gone straight in at a senior level, with a remit to increase the industrial relevance of a course at a university with a very good research reputation, and a terrible reputation (at the time) amongst employers of their graduates. I learned a lot about academia whilst I was there, and I have far more sympathy as a result with academics than many who read my diatribes against the overemphasis on research in academia might think.

This is the first in a series of posts about what I learned there.

Professor Sean Moran is a Chartered Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

Sean’s latest books are also available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!


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Chemical Engineering

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