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Study the earth: Being green's not just for hippies

Studying the environment has never been more popular. Sign up now for January

Climate change is big news. Along-side terrorism, there's no issue more talked about, or threat more feared. Now, a number of postgraduate courses are catering for those wanting to get ahead on environmental issues. Several begin at the start of next year.

The Graduate School for the Environment – accredited by, though no longer part of, the University of East London (UEL) – is taking the lead in the UK's transition to a low-carbon economy, and runs a fascinating MSc in how to create buildings in a sustainable way. Called architecture: advanced environmental and energy studies, the course is flexible in the extreme. First, it has a March 2008 intake for those keen to begin right away. Second, it can be completed on a full-time (one year) or part-time (two year) basis. Third, it can be completed via distance learning, or at the graduate school base, the Centre for Alternative Technology in Mid Wales – or a combination of the two.

The Centre started life in the 1970s as a bunch of hippies experimenting with organic food in a disused quarry. In 2000 it became part of higher education by opening its doors to UEL students on the MSc.

Simon Tucker, leader of the environmental and energy studies course, says that it offers a mixture of the practical – looking at sustainable materials – and the theoretical – academic study of global issues and what "sustainable" actually means.

The course has around 400 students, making it one of the largest Masters courses in the UK. Students are able to spend intensive, five-day modules at the graduate school's home, the Centre for Alternative Technology. They can then develop this work at home. "It's a serious, academic course but it has that practical element at the centre. Suddenly the stuff that is in books about organics is right there in front of you – it's made very real for students," says Tucker.

Glasgow Caledonian has a similar climate change hub: the Caledonian Environment Centre. The university offers two environmental courses – MSc energy and environmental management and MSc environmental civil engineering – that start in January.

"We take students from a wide range of backgrounds, from economics and geography to engineering and politics," says Dr Stas Burek, who lectures on the energy and environmental management course. "What we aim to do is teach students about the environment so that they can put this into the context of what they already know: we call it 'value-added'.

"We do this by teaching the basics of a range of topics from biology to renewable energy to waste management. We also cover the 'softer' side of things such as legislation and the social aspects."

Students at Glasgow Caledonian will benefit from a number of field trips. Like students at the Centre for Alternative Technology, who have the Snowdonia National Park on their doorsteps, Caledonian students have the Highlands at a stone's throw.

The environmental obsession is being witnessed across the board. "Just recently there's been an increase in interest," says Jane Sherwin of De Montfort University. "It's the 'in-subject' at the moment."

Sherwin is programme administrator on De Montfort's postgraduate courses in environmental quality management and environmental protection.

The programmes are taught by distance learning: CD Rom plus contact with a personal tutor by telephone and email. All tutors are professionals with industry experience.

These courses offer three intakes a year and, says Sherwin, the university accepts people right up until the last minute – just pick up the phone and check, she urges. "We've always had three intakes because it's not ideal to start in September for everybody. It's flexible: to start in January could be perfect. After all, Christmas is out of the way and its weeks before you have to start thinking about holidays for the family. It's an ideal opportunity to get stuck into the course," she says.