Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

Shining light on a global challenge: leveraging specialisms with EU funded research collaborations


Smaller and specialist universities provide an important and niche function in the UK university sector. Not only do they offer opportunities for innovation in course delivery, they are able to respond quickly to the specific needs of local employers or students. This is often the result of maintaining a historical tradition of craft expertise in a specific specialist area which may be unique to their local economy.

Like many such institutions, Buckinghamshire New University can struggle to get a foothold in the bigger, competitive world of research funding. Successful grant applications often require a well developed research support infrastructure which small and specialist universities can find difficult to establish and sustain. A great advantage of European funding is the explicit focus on building collaborative partnerships in which the specialist expertise in small universities can be utilised as part of a much larger endeavour.

This is the case of the WATERSPOUTT Consortium, an EU Horizon 2020 funded project in which the specific skills found in Buckinghamshire New University, namely product design and community health, are being put to great effect for a pressing global problem: water sanitisation. Professor Susan Procter, Director of the Faculty of Society and Health, describes how the collaboration came about and what it hopes to achieve.

The WATERSPOUTT Consortium

WATERSPOUTT is a 3.6 million Euro Horizon 2020 funded consortium, led by Prof Kevin McGuigan at Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) (www.rcsi.ie) and is comprised of 13 partners from 7 European countries, including Ireland, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Austria and Switzerland.

It is a public health project that seeks to provide low cost solutions to the treatment of the water supply of African countries. It is estimated that over 1 billion people suffer from the results of a contaminated water supply and that 6,000 children die each day from diarrhoea as a result.

The WATERSPOUTT consortium will develop a range of sustainable solar disinfection technologies that will provide affordable access to safe drinking water to remote and vulnerable communities throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and other water challenged countries or disaster situations by co-designing large volume treatment technologies in collaboration and consultation with the communities who will ultimately use them.

The overall aim is to transform access to safe drinking water through integrated social science and solar technologies. The consortium will design, pilot, assess the performance and standardise products in accordance with international guidelines. These technological solutions will include solar disinfection reactors for rainwater collection, solar water disinfection jerrycans and ceramic filtration reactors.

These technologies will be for both household use and community partners such as primary schools and community health clinics. The project will determine the feasibility and challenges faced at a household, community, regional and national level, for the adoption of solar technologies for drinking water treatment for rural communities without access to a safe supply. In order to do this, the researchers will work with local communities to co-design community-led educational and action programmes for the appropriate uptake of solar based technologies.
Realising our potential

Buckinghamshire New University’s involvement in the WATERSPOUTT project arose from a meeting of one of our Erasmus team with Professor Kevin McGuigan, the project coordinator. As we are a small university, with 700 staff and 8,500 students across three campuses, the Erasmus team member knew about the research on water filtration that had been undertaken in our product design area as both an undergraduate dissertation project and then a KTP and this led to a meeting at our Wycombe site where Kevin was able to meet with the team and see our facilities.

Previous work with the AQUA-SYN project, which looked at bottled water and health education, as well as our expertise in product design, ensures that we are able to design and manufacture the prototype transparent jerry cans and their ceramic filters which will be used to collect, store and filter water that will be disinfected by solar power. This aspect of the project, which is led by Dr Lyndon Buck, Principal Lecturer – Product Design, draws from our long history of design which means we have:

  • Large scale prototyping capabilities in wood, metal, plastics, ceramics and glass
  • 3D printing and experience in a variety of industries
  • Materials testing and mechanical engineering facilities for performance trials
  • Previous experience of UK and EU funded water purification, materials testing, environmental and sustainable design projects
  • Long history of professional education in engineering 3D design, furniture & product design
  • Undergraduate project stream in appropriate technologies for developing countries

More recently, Buckinghamshire New University has also become a local provider for nursing, health and social care education and is building research capability in primary and community care. Our expertise in this area forms another strand of the project which will be led by Professor Susan Procter. Bringing this aspect of the University together with product design for this project means we will also deliver training and development for public health workers who will work with our African University and NGO partners to deliver the changed public perceptions of the treated water.

It was the size of the organisation that allowed us to see opportunities to bring together expertise from two different subject teams within the University product design and community health – our scale was an advantage in setting out our strengths as a partner for this project. Small Universities may lack the economies of scale that larger organisation can achieve but they gain in nimbleness and an ability to cut across the silos that can grow up in more complex organisations.

For more information about the WATERSPOUTT project contact Professor Procter. Buckinghamshire New University is a member of GuildHE’s research network CREST, the Consortium for Research Excellence, Support, and Training: www.crest.ac.uk

Established in 2010, CREST is a self-sustaining, collaborative network with 22 members. It embodies the principle of supporting research excellence wherever it is found. CREST creates critical mass amongst ‘islands of excellence’ and a complementary research environment for smaller and more specialist institutions.