Shelling out £8,000 for a Masters course is a big step in anyone's book, and Carl McConnell admits that when he did that last September, at the outset of his MSc in urban regeneration at University College London, he felt nervous about whether he was taking the right step. "I didn't know if I was doing the right thing," he recalls. "But as soon as it started, it was great. I found myself with such a diverse bunch of people, and when we do group work, you get so many viewpoints expressed."
The diversity among the 20 others on the full-time Masters at UCL's Bartlett School of Planning is first represented in the nationalities of his fellow students; English as a first language is in the minority – mother tongues include Chinese, Russian and Greek. And the class also contains graduates in a range of subjects, including geography, economics and architecture.
McConnell's enthusiasm has also been driven by the mix of theoretical and practical content of the course. "In the first term we went on two field trips and what we got access to was just amazing," he explains.
"For example, on the field trip to Wroclaw in Poland we were taken around the brand new sports stadium by the chief engineer, and in Hamburg we were given a tour of the new Hafen City, a development around the harbour area."
McConnell, 35, first became interested in his Masters subject during his geography degree at King's College London a few years ago. "I'd always been interested in the built environment, but when I did my dissertation on Beirut, which I visited to do my research, that really fired my interest in regeneration," he recalls. "Since then I've become really interested in how to regenerate areas that have had inter-communal strife."
In his own time, he's visited Mostar in Bosnia, which was the scene of some of the most bitter inter-ethnic hatred and fighting during the war in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and he is hoping to base his dissertation for his current MSc on Belfast, where the Protestant/ Unionist and Catholic/Nationalist sides of the community were at loggerheads for several decades of the past century.
In each of the first two terms, McConnell and his fellow students study three core modules and one elective. Each has two hours of lectures each week. The final term is devoted to preparing for exams and writing the dissertation.
"Every term we have to hand in two pieces of work," he says. "One of these is a traditional essay and one a report, using computer presentation software, which is I think a good thing, because when we are going for jobs, employers will want people with experience in writing reports, not just academic essays.
"The report I wrote last term was on community participation in the City of London, and the interesting thing there was defining what the word 'community' meant in the context of a place that is used by the majority of people as a workplace, not a place to live."
McConnell admits that he won't really know whether embarking on this Masters course was a good move, in financial terms, until he eventually puts himself into the job market next autumn.
"The university has been completely honest with us, telling us that, in the current economic climate, we'll really have to fight for our jobs," he says. "Past graduates of this course have ended up working for NGOs, or as chartered surveyors or urban planners. But what I'd really love to do is work in urban renewal in Beirut or elsewhere in Lebanon, especially as I've been studying Arabic for about six years as well."