Win friends and make world peace

Why can't British universities offer more of Harvard's 'air of glamour'?
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The Independent Online

It always seemed a bit too much like hard work, the ultimate exercise in self-sacrifice, which made the prospect of a mid-career Masters degree less than attractive. Some of my friends had given up their entire social life, squeezing in hours of part-time studying alongside a more than full-time job. Or there were the career-minded city types who invested in a future high-flying position by opting for an MBA. I didn't exactly fit that mould, either.

It always seemed a bit too much like hard work, the ultimate exercise in self-sacrifice, which made the prospect of a mid-career Masters degree less than attractive. Some of my friends had given up their entire social life, squeezing in hours of part-time studying alongside a more than full-time job. Or there were the career-minded city types who invested in a future high-flying position by opting for an MBA. I didn't exactly fit that mould, either.

Then, suddenly, ITN decided to reward long-serving staff by offering the chance to apply for a year off on an unpaid sabbatical, and I was first in the queue.

Ten years earlier, I had turned down the chance to do a DPhil at Harvard and Oxford in order to join ITN, and I'd often regretted my decision. Now I had asecond chance - and Harvardhad the ideal course, the mid-career Masters in PublicAdministration, at the Kennedy School of Government.

Now all I needed was a place, and the small matter of $50,000 (£35,000) to pay for it all: I was lucky enough to win a Fulbright scholarship, which covered all the fees, and took care of the living expenses on top.

The transition from work to student life was a daunting prospect. I wanted a challenge, new horizons, something to get my brain cells working again after years of writing news headlines in 30 seconds or less.

Working for ITN was always hectic and often stressful: but I wasn't quite sure if I was ready to plunge straight into a whole new set of pressures and deadlines - the mixture of essay crises, political campaigning and a non-stop social life, late nights and early mornings which made up my undergraduate years.

The first few days at Harvard were a heady mix of talks, discussions and getting-to-know you sessions which set the pattern for the weeks to come. The students came from all over the world and every conceivable background: they had been political leaders, campaign managers, aid workers and military commanders.

Everyone shared the same trepidation about the year ahead: coping with the workload, getting high enough grades. Luckily this was no academic ivory tower. The emphasis was on practical, hands-on skills rather than theory for its own sake. The most hyped, and oversubscribed courses were in subjects like negotiation and leadership, which offered the promise of real-life success.

The classes were incredibly intense, with at least three sessions a week where students conducted one-on-one negotiations, role-playing real situations, then critiqued each others' work in lengthy debriefs.

Madeleine Pill, from Cardiff, who is taking her third Masters degree at the Kennedy School, says seven years working for consultancy firms and a local council have given her a far more mature perspective on education.

She took her first postgraduate course straight after university: "Looking back, I'd say I did miss out with that. I had no frame of reference, no maturing of perspective, and what I brought to my studies wasn't as rich.

"This is twice as much work, and twice as intense, but then this is a world-class institution where just meeting people is an education in itself."

America's elite public policy schools may not be as well known as their richer, brasher equivalents in the law and business fields - but they offer a unique educational experience. If a slogan could sum them up,it might be this: how to winfriends and influence people,and bring peace to Kosovo allat the same time.

Funded by the generous donations of public-spirited benefactors, they are an attempt to combine practical experience with political and economic theory; students and professors are typically drawn from the ranks of public-sector jobs and non-profit organisations. High-flying professional experience isvalued just as highly asacademic qualifications.

The richness and diversity of the staff and students was the Kennedy School's finest resource. It meant they could offer an unparalleled range of courses, in many cases taught by people who hadn't just written about history but had helped to make it.

The faculty boasted dozens of senior figures from the past four decades of American administrations, thanks to the so-called "revolving door" which provided a seamless route from politics to journalism or academia and back again. This being a general election year, some of the professors took time out to act as advisers to the presidential campaign teams.

They would return occasionally from the political battlefront, with exciting tales from behind the scenes, the secrets of debateswon or lost, of promises madeor forgotten.

There was an air of glamour and national importance rarely evident in British universities. Wouldn't it be nice if there was something like it this side ofthe Atlantic.

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