More and more construction professionals who want to gain a competitive edge to progress their careers are turning to distance learning. Just don’t think of it as the easy option

careers headshot

Construction companies are clamouring for skilled staff now the economy has swung back into action, which should be good news for those eager to land the right role that gives them job satisfaction. But while the economic recovery is welcome, it doesn’t necessarily help individuals who want to gain access to a higher status or higher paid job, or to side-step into a specific specialism.

Employers naturally want to appoint the best candidates with relevant knowledge and understanding, and so for people who have specific ambitions or want a gear-change in their careers, they need something to give them a competitive edge - and often that something is a postgraduate degree.

It’s widely recognised in many sectors including construction that a masters degree provides people with relevant vocational skills that can lead to high performance and in turn increase a company’s competitiveness.

In the UK 8,465 people were registered on a full-time “architecture, building and planning” postgraduate degree and 5,955 people on a part-time one in 2012/13, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Clearly postgrad degrees are a popular way to retrain and adapt to a changing jobs market, and an area that is growing in popularity are courses that enable students to take part through distance learning. In 2012/13, according to the HESA, 1,040 postgraduate degrees in the architecture, building and planning category were offered as distance learning courses, the vast majority of which were part-time.

This is a flexible way to gain qualifications while still working, and it means distance learners don’t have to attend specific lectures or tutorials. Instead most learning materials are available online so you can study when it suits you. Learning in this way means what would normally be a full-time one-year degree course can take two years or more. It also means that you tend to pay course fees in smaller instalments, either by module or by academic year, although sometimes the overall cost can be slightly more (see below).

Distance learning in action

One example of a distance learning degree is an MSc in Construction Project Management at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. According to the university it has more than doubled its intake in the 2013/14 academic year. Course leader Rob Leslie believes the popularity of online postgraduate courses lies in the flexibility they offer students. “Completing a Masters online allows students to continue in their jobs while studying for a qualification which will then allow them to progress their career,” he says.

“We are seeing a lot of people, who already have a great deal of experience within the industry, using it as a springboard to progress to a managerial position.”

The course opens lots of opportunities for people who would have thought ‘I’ll never get the chance.’ It’s bloody hard work but for what you learn and what you gain, it’s amazing

Brian Crawford, architecture student

Many of the students on this course come from outside the UK but through this fully online course they all have access to a virtual classroom, which enables staff-student contact without being on campus. This virtual learning environment is called CampusMoodle and it is supplemented by the provision of core reading, case study materials, web links and video footage. In addition, systems such as Skype are used for online tutorials, guest presentations, virtual site visits and interviews. The university is now launching an equally online-based MSc called Visualisation in Architecture and Built Environment for graduates with industry-related degrees to reflect the increasing use of BIM and visualisation techniques.

Cardiff University has also adapted an MSc for distance learners and has come up with various ways for students to access resources and submit course work (see below). Its Environmental Design of Buildings MSc via distance learning was initially planned over three years but can now be taken over one or two years, according to the course leader Eleni Ampatzi. “Access to the course material is offered to distance learners through Learning Central, the university’s virtual learning environment,” says Eleni. “Students work through set texts, supplied either through Learning Central or through e-books available via the electronic library service.”

There are also online discussion boards for tutor-student support and peer support. The design project module involves weekly tutorials through an online communication platform where students present their project proposals and receive feedback.

A slightly different type of distance learning course is the RIBA Examination in Architecture for Office-based Candidates run by Oxford Brookes University. This is specifically for people who are in full-time work but who want to become qualified architects. Brian Crawford, a 46-year-old architecture technician for the civil service in Northern Ireland, is about to take his Part III exams after studying on this course for seven years. He says: “There are very few options here in Northern Ireland; you either have to study full time or you have to go across the water.”

To do the course Brian had to have a local tutor and an office mentor. He can submit work documents electronically, but for presentations of his design work he has to travel to Oxford to give them in person. He reckons he spends about 15 hours a week studying, which he says can be hard to juggle with his full-time job and his family life. Despite all this Brian says the course is “exceptional”. “It opens lots of opportunities for people who would have thought ‘I’ll never get the chance,’” he says. “It is bloody hard work but for what you learn and what you gain, it’s amazing”.

Studying the courses

Environmental Design of Buildings MSC

Cardiff University, Welsh School of Architecture

The course is suitable for graduates or experienced practitioners in disciplines related to the built environment, such as architecture, building services engineering, building technology who would like to strengthen their expertise in environmental design.

Course aims:

  • To develop in students the knowledge and ability needed to design healthy, comfortable and secure environments in and around buildings that place a minimal strain on global resources;
  • To prepare students for adopting the role of an environmental designer in the building team, and adapting to changing demands on this role as sustainable policies are increasingly supported by the public and by governments;
  • To encourage in students an understanding of both the principles and application of the subject, using project work to emphasise practicalities and develop necessary working skills and a research dissertation to emphasise the ongoing development of knowledge.

Cost for

  • Full time: £7,440
  • Part time:£3,720
  • Distance Learning fee: £1,860 per year for years one and two, £3720 for year three

Architectural Technology and Building Performance MSc

Edinburgh Napier University

This course incorporates current construction techniques and explores regulatory and commercial issues; students build on their existing qualifications or experience in this area to develop knowledge of architectural technology; building performance; and the laws that govern the industry. Students gain a broad understanding of the construction industry and learn how to apply this to create design solutions.

Course modules

  • Sustainable Building Design
  • Timber Form & Construction
  • Regulation Certification and Compliance
  • Design Project & Technical Report
  • Advanced Digital Media
  • Building Performance 1
  • Building Performance 2
  • Building Performance 3
  • Concrete Form & Construction


  • Two years, distance without attendance degree: £570 per credit module
  • Two years, part-time degree: £570 per credit module
  • One-year full-time degree: £3750 per year

Construction Project Management MSC

Robert Gordon University

This course develops the interpersonal skills required for effective project management. It also develops judgmental, managerial and leadership qualities, building on the students’ knowledge and experience gained in first degrees and/or the work environment. Students are provided with a professional experience that allows them to pursue their personal objectives in the areas of Property and Project Management, Construction Management and Consultancy, and Research in the Built Environment.

Course modules

  • Sustainable Development, Project Information, Organisation & Behaviour, Design Management, Project Management 1
  • Built Asset Procurement & Contractual Arrangements, Project Planning and Control, Risk and Safety Management, Facilities Management, Property Investment and Management.
  • Dissertation


Distance Learning, part time

  • £2,065 Stage 1
  • £2,065 Stage 2
  • £1,370 MSc dissertation stage

Full time

  • £4,200 entire course