Photo credit: Rosalind Bryce

Developing a virtual student community – MSc Sustainable Mountain Development

by | Apr 19, 2022 | European stakeholders

Author: Dr Rosalind Bryce (Centre for Mountain Studies – Perth College UHI)

The Centre for Mountain Studies is a Research Centre at Perth College UHI – and part of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in Scotland. Since 2000 it has run a successful MSc programme in Sustainable Mountain Development. The course is run entirely online which allows candidates living and working in mountain areas and those living in other parts of the world to enroll and become part of a lively community of interest. The course tends to attract people who are either already working on mountain related issues or aspire to do so in the future. The international nature of this community generates rich opportunities for discussion and exchange and is a key strength of the course, according to our graduates. Students study in part time mode which affords them flexibility to fit their studies around other work and life commitments.

The course aims to provide an interdisciplinary grounding in all aspects of mountain sustainability. Our students begin their studies with a module on the environmental and social issues in mountain areas, taking a global perspective of the world’s mountains and the issues influencing them. This provides an understanding of the biophysical characteristics of mountains before moving on to social, economic and policy focused considerations. The students engage with lively online debates on topics such as ‘defining mountains with reference to biophysical characteristics’ and ‘identifying and describing examples of mountain value chains’ (e.g. in relation to local mountain products). Other core modules on the programme are Sustainable Development and Policy Analysis, which cover a range of fundamental concepts. There are also a diverse range of optional modules on topics such as communities and nature, sustainable land use and renewable energy, sustainable deer management, local economic development, water management, biodiversity management. There is a module on research methods and techniques that students are strongly encouraged to study if they are to progress to the final stage of the MSC – the research dissertation.

Dissertation students identify a research topic, and design and implement their methodology with the support of a supervisor. Topics have been diverse in terms of theme and approach. Recent dissertations have included studies on wildfire management, mountain tourism, management of mountain biospheres, water pollution, glaciation and the conservation of golden eagles and wildcats. You can see a full list of dissertation titles here.

Photo credit: Jamie Street, Scotland

Staff at the Centre for Mountain Studies are all active researchers so research-teaching linkages are strong and students will benefit from the ongoing diverse upland and mountain research activity. Students may complete six modules and their dissertation to graduate with a full Masters; but they also have the option to graduate with a Postgraduate Certificate (3 modules) or a Postgraduate Diploma (6 modules) depending on their personal objectives.

It offers two modules as stand-alone opportunities for continuing professional development – sustainable deer management and water management. Deer management is a particularly significant issue in the UK and at the heart of broader debates about land use in the uplands. It is a subject that tends to polarise opinion and the module aims to clarify the scientific evidence underpinning deer management and policy development. Water management is increasingly critical as we deal with the effects of climate change, so we look forward to broadening participation on this module in the future. These modules are popular among practitioners involved with these significant land use challenges and we often have private land-owners, representatives from public agencies, NGOs, and civil servants working alongside our MSc students, which of course makes for some fascinating debate.

A paper published by the founder of the programme, Professor Martin Price, and myself as current programme leader, explains the development of the course, and the key motivations and perspectives of students who have taken part based on a survey of our graduates.

A majority of graduates share a personal passion for mountains, which inspired them to pursue the MSc. Other motivations included a desire to progress their careers in mountain related topics through their studies and this was facilitated by the online nature of the course as it allowed them to study while continuing to work in mountain areas; indeed half of our graduates live and work in the mountains. The survey revealed that half of the surveyed graduates reported contributing to sustainable mountain development in the time since completing the course. Graduates went on to work on planning processes for climate change and post-disaster management (in Nepal), protected area management, public awareness and education, strategies to tackle depopulation (in Italy) and more generally on the development of sustainable development projects and programmes. These contributions demonstrate the applied nature of the course content.

The course continues to be developed to reflect contemporary issues and challenges influencing mountain areas. The twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss in these sensitive environments motivate both our research and teaching connected to our valuable mountain landscapes.

I often had the sensation of being in a living classroom, in that I encountered the material/themes we discussed during the week in the mountains where I lived. This interconnection of theory and practice (or practical life issues) made the program very invigorating and helped me recognize the mountain environment with a depth of vision, functioning on many levels below the surface—whereas previously I’d seen and interacted only on a surface level” – graduate who described their experience of the MSc Sustainable Mountain Development.

For further information on the MSc Sustainable Mountain Development, please visit the website.