Higher Education: A degree in clubbing? I'll drink to that: Academic research into weird and wonderful subjects can change the way we live. Nick Holdsworth explains

Andy Lovatt, a research student, keeps odd hours. For his masters degree at Manchester Metropolitan University, he mingles with the late-night, low-life crowd, a rich primary source for his studies of the night-time economy.

Clubbing and pubbing can become something of a chore, the Institute for Popular Culture researcher admits. But he takes the ribbing from colleagues in his stride, because he believes his work will contribute to shaping life in Britain's city centres.

Like other academics' investigations of the weird and wonderful, Mr Lovatt's studies have a serious social purpose. 'In Britain, we tend to look at the cafe cultures of European cities and think they just happened, which couldn't be further from the truth,' he says. 'A lot of work has gone into encouraging the development of an economy that allows city centres to be lively and safe places after dark.'

Although Mr Lovatt, whose first degree was in politics and history, needs to keep abreast of late-night developments in central Manchester, much of his time is spent with his nose in 'weighty legal tomes'. Being on first-name terms with night-club bouncers and a regular at all manner of obscure bars and clubs may sound exotic, but most of his meetings tend to be with magistrates, council officials, police chiefs and others who have influence on the policies that determine whether the city centre is a bright, lively place after dark, or a threatening and isolated area to be avoided.

Britain's city centres are too often places of fear and crime at night. Mr Lovatt aims to influence the debate over how to breathe life into the night-time economy.

'We are doing work that actually has a bearing on the world around us today,' he says. 'It's not a question of writing a thesis and sticking it on a shelf to collect dust.'

Meanwhile, Les Moseley is hoping that the new degree course he will be directing at Coventry University from September - a BSc in international disaster management - will save lives around the world.

This will be Britain's first course tailored to training students to respond to disasters the world over. And the first two British students, chosen after intensive physical and mental tests, are a former SAS soldier and a mother in her forties.

In an exclusive partnership between the university and the Fire Service College in Moreton-in- Marsh, Gloucestershire, the first intake of 48 students will spend three years learning about the engineering practicalities and management of famines, earthquakes, fires or floods.

The idea for the degree came from a former member of staff who had seen for himself the logistical difficulties faced by aid agencies in Kurdistan. The university chose Mr Moseley, former chief emergency planning officer for the West Midlands fire and civil defence authority, to set up and lead the course. One year will be spent at the fire college, and an optional fourth year with an aid agency.

'The demand for a course like this has come from the aid agencies themselves - particularly the United Nations and the World Health Organisation,' he says. 'They are both concerned about 'the bloody amateurs', and want a much more co- ordinated, cohesive and professional approach in the response to international disasters.'

Core courses in applied engineering, resource management and other technological aspects of disaster response will be supplemented by regular guest lectures from those working at the harsh end of disaster relief. Field skills will also be taught, often during the winter months, in Snowdonia.

However,Dr Tony Curtis of Plymouth University does not want his students to be tough - he wants them to be sensitive. Applicants for the university's new business of perfumery degree, which starts this September, must take a sniffing test to prove they have a nose that can detect subtle differences between aromas.

'We're not looking for bloodhounds, but we do want students who can pass a simple odour test,' says Dr Curtis, who joined the former polytechnic after 25 years in the perfume industry.

The subject of the degree may sound like whimsy, but he believes his graduates will have few problems finding jobs. Demand for the 20-place course, backed by the British Society of Perfumers, has come from students and employees in the industry.

Dr Curtis says that Plymouth's promotion to university status last year provided impetus for the course. 'If you are a new university, you have to create your own ethos. We now have the chance to do that in an exciting way.'

Independence has also helped Cannington College in Somerset to develop another rare course: a higher national diploma in golf- course green-keeping and European studies. Validated by the University of the West of England in Bristol, it is only the second such course in the country. The college has its own nine-hole, 60-acre golf course, where students can practise their game and learn to care for the greens.

Nick Rigden, head of horticulture and a keen golfer, points to the 'dramatic growth' in golf's popularity over the past few years as evidence for the demand. 'There are tremendous job opportunities in this country and in Europe, where golf is also booming.'

(Photograph omitted)