The international Masters Degree in Structural Analysis of Monuments and Historical Constructions (SAHC) is a unique education programme, the winner last May of the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage – "Europa Nostra" -, one of the leading awards in the area worldwide.
Financed by the European Commission and coordinated by UMinho, SAHC is a one-year course entirely taught in English, aimed at students who have a minimum of 4 years of previous higher education. Objective: to provide advanced training in the area of conservation and rehabilitation of constructed cultural heritage.
This course is distinctive for its global reach, having around 400 graduates from 65 countries, mainly Europe, but also from the USA, Iran, China, Colombia, Canada and Mexico. Apart from UMinho, the Czech Technical University in Prague, the Technical University of Catalonia – Barcelona Tech, and the University of Padova are involved in teaching.
In order to learn more about this international education programme, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, NÓS Alumni interviewed Paulo Lourenço, course coordinator and lecturer in the Department of Civil Engineering of UMinho in Guimarães.
Paulo Lourenço in the Department of Civil Engineering of UMinho in Guimarães.
How did the opportunity to create the Masters in Structural Analysis of Monuments and Historical Constructions come about?
The idea to set up the masters degree came naturally to an international group of colleagues and institutions that had spent some time dedicated to this area, and had been collaborating since the 1990s in the training of graduates in European projects and in the organization of conferences, in Minho University, the Technical University of Catalonia (UPC/Barcelona Tech), Spain and the University of Padova, Italy. The year the masters degree was created (2006) came after a period of great eastward expansion by the European Union (2004), so the inclusion of partners from the Czech Republic was a natural consequence of this enlargement. Thus, the Czech Technical University in Prague and the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic were included as partners.
The masters course applied for European funding (Erasmus Mundus programme) and was approved straight away for a period of 5 years. Later, this was renewed for a further 5 years. In these 10 years the total of European funding has been around 4 million euros. The funding ended in the academic year 2016/17.
What is different about this course relative to other existing courses for the preservation of heritage?
This masters is a niche education project dedicated to constructed heritage, with a technical side that includes construction materials and those elements that ensure the stability of the construction. Put simply, the masters is directed to safely maintaining old monuments and buildings, ensuring that they are passed on to future generations in a reasonable condition. This is an impressive challenge given that we aim at prolonging the life of these constructions for all eternity, as a marker of cultural identity, that which defines us as being from Guimarães, Braga, Portugal …
The course combines the advanced scientific knowledge in experimental techniques and computational simulation with the best professional practices. For this reason, for example, the University of Minho has been consulted on various emblematic cases in our country and in the world, including for example, the Largo do Paço, the Paço dos Duques de Bragança, the Sé of Porto, the Monastery of Jerónimos, the Palace of Belém, Canterbury Cathedral (UK), Ica Cathedral (Peru), Christchurch Cathedral (New Zealand), the Municipal Theatre of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), the São Sebastião Basilica (Manilas, Philippines), and many more.
On the other hand, the University of Minho is involved with the largest international research group in masonry and wood construction, with great experience, for example, in non-destructive tests, advanced tools for evaluating security or seismic engineering. It is this combination of research with professional practice that has strengthened this unique education programme.
The project includes the use of advanced experimental software and its practical use in a case study, allowing the formation of professionals of the future, going way beyond encyclopaedic knowledge, with excellent capacity for processing information from different scientific areas, for oral and written communication, for managing stress and anxiety, for team work and other relevant skills. The education programme requires students to be present 8 hours a day in UMinho, with classes every morning and work during the afternoons.
This masters degree is a partnership with other well-known European universities. How does the combination of different areas of expertise from these diverse educational institutions work? Are the courses similar?
Indeed, up to the present academic year about 50% of the teaching staff has been international, uniting the best of our partners’ expertise with the internationalization of teaching practice. Four European institutions have hosted the course during the last 10 years (around 20 students simultaneously in each one), on a rotation basis. UMinho has received students for coursework every 2 years. All the teaching materials were developed by approximately 40 lecturers from different European institutions, which is unique, and the training offered by the four degree-awarding institutions is exactly the same. All students receive joint degrees awarded by the institutions where they studied.
From the next academic year, all the coursework will be concentrated in UMinho since European funding will have ceased and it is important to assure the financial sustainability of the project.
There is an obligatory mobility component to one of the consortium universities...
Up to the present academic year, for the 7 months of the coursework the students were concentrated in two groups of 20 students each, in two institutions. Then they passed to a second institution for 4 months to write their dissertations. In addition, there has been an integration week in October/November when all the students come together in a small village in the mountains of Catalonia, with a few teachers. At this time, technical and cultural visits as well as soft skills development sessions (leadership, communication and oral presentation), among other activities, are run. In this way, contact between all the students of the same intake has been facilitated.
From this academic year all the teaching will be concentrated in Guimarães, with the collaboration of one international lecturer from each participating country. Subsequently, the students will write their dissertations in the 4 participating countries. Thus, around 75% of students will be mobile and 25% will stay in UMinho.
What kind of student is interested in this course? How many students have there been since the beginning?
The course has produced around 400 graduates from a total of 65 countries, in ten editions (including a special edition during the current academic year in Spanish, financed for students from Latin America – 21 students). Each intake has students from around 20 different countries, half European and half non-European. The countries furnishing the most students have been Italy, Greece, USA, Spain, Portugal, Iran, China, Canada, India and Colombia.
50% of the students are civil engineers, 25% engineers-architects (graduates of courses such as engineering-architecture, building engineering or similar) and 25% are architects (with a strong technical competency, typically Italian, Spanish and also from some other countries). The average age is 27, from recent graduates with an undergraduate degree of 4 years to 40-year-olds with professional experience. The oldest student was 55, and a couple of students had PhDs. In this way there is a blend of basic training, age, professional experience, geographic location, professional practice and cultural vision.
The master degree was the winner last May of the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage – “Europa Nostra”, one of the leading awards in the area worldwide. What does this recognition mean to you?
Any recognition is the result of team work that, in this case, combines a group of highly motivated teaching staff and exceptional students, with a high quality teaching project with recognized scientific and professional components. I usually say that along with recognition comes big responsibility. In this case, by increasing the recognition for the teaching project, the prize comes at the best time since the European financing has ended. Also, the prize motivates the team.
The jury’s comment that: “This project has great international value and its global reach is a notable model for other similar initiatives” greatly values the commitment of the team that has been dedicated to the project for the last ten years.
In the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage – “Europa Nostra” cerimony
What has the feedback been like from the graduates of this course? What impact has it had on the students’ development?
The feedback from the students was excellent, from incredulity to the expression of a true feeling that the prize was well deserved. It is not usual to hear students say, “there has never been an education programme like this one” or that “the commitment of the teaching staff of this course is unbelievable” or that “the balance between theory and practice makes this masters degree a really innovative project” or even “no matter how long we worked we went home with a smile on our faces”.
It’s still early to say what the impact on student development has been/is, but how many European education projects (especially from the periphery) manage to get their graduates into the best engineering companies in the world (for example, Arup or Ramboll) or win traineeships in international competitions (Getty Conservation Institute, USA, 4 students; Robert Silman Fellowship, USA, 2 students)? In addition, various ex-students of SAHC have been accepted to do PhDs by the best universities in the world, a common practice also of the partner universities that typically accept 4 or 5 graduates a year for PhDs, another proof of recognition.
How do you view these 10 years of the course?
Assessments have to be made every day and the success of a project demands close monitoring, so a “round” date like 10 years has no special significance. Personally, this is in fact a life’s work that represents almost 50% of my academic life in terms of time.
It was possible to create a circle of friends from all over the world, where it is almost impossible to travel professionally without meeting ex-students from this course. The biggest conference in this area, that typically brings together 250-350 participants from all over the world, has about 20 of our former masters students, which is impressive. The potential is boundless as the former students begin to develop activities of increased relevance and responsibility.
Academic component aside, what impact has the course had, for example, on the actions undertaken or on the protection of architectural heritage, among others?
It is not easy to evaluate the professional impact of the course. What we do know is that Europe is the leader in this field and 50% of our students are European. We also know that there are various such courses in the USA ((Association for Preservation Technology International) that have been taught by our former students, and that our graduates are highly qualified professionals spread all over the world, whether they be in universities (for example in Bangladesh, India, Japan or Peru, in a total of 15% of former students), or in consulting firms (30% of graduates). This most certainly has a positive impact on the conservation of architectural heritage.
Do you think that the initial expectations have been achieved? What are the future challenges?
The expectations have been clearly achieved. Not only has the masters degree been recognized worldwide but it has received over 400 applications / year for 40 places (academic year 2016/17). For the next academic year (2017/18), without scholarships from the European Commission, we have received 120 applications up to now and we expect to accept about 30 students. This masters degree contributes, without a doubt, to the international impact of the Department of Civil Engineering and the University of Minho.
The biggest challenge is that of financial sustainability, due to the high fees required by our European partners and to the high cost of a project of excellence. Guimarães certainly has some positive points, such as the welcome of the community, the climate, the proximity to the sea, security and relatively low cost of living (in a European or first world country context). However, we come up short in comparison with the major world magnets for international students (like the USA or the UK) because of language, employment, positioning in the international rankings and tradition. At the same time, various European countries operate a no-fee policy or provide financial support to their students. It would be good to have a careful reflection on the policies of support for internationalization of higher education in Portugal that promote the creation of solid bases for the exportation of higher education services. Estimates claim this economic sector is worth €400m in exports/year with a potential to reach €2000m/year in the short term.