In a fast-changing, technological society, universities are never far behind in minting new courses and qualifications to bridge gaps and update skills. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the growing spread of taught Masters courses for postgraduates looking for an advantage in the job market.
Masters courses are good business for universities, and attract a considerable number of overseas students. But for the students they can be extremely valuable in bringing together different disciplines – arts, sciences, business – and combining practical as well as academic study.
If you want to explore, for example, the world of digital technology and e-commerce, there are plenty of courses at business schools that will teach you about the management of new technologies. But "New media, information and society", a new MA course now in its second year at the London School of Economics, takes a wider and more critical look at digital technology, examining it not only in terms of its commercial viability but also asking questions about its social impact.
"If we were looking at the Government's targets for the introduction of e-government services – such as tax – we would ask students to think not only about how that can be accomplished, but also whether it is a good thing and how citizens might be affected," says Professor Robin Mansell, who teaches the course.
The MA attracts about 20 students from around the world, most of them with some experience of digital technology. Graduates have gone on to varied careers in the law, advertising and public-policy analysis. "I believe that these students leave with an ability to draw on a richer range of resources in terms of thinking critically," Professor Mansell says. "They will have a greater facility to say to people in IT why it matters to think about developments in relation to their social context."
King's College London is also planning to venture further into digital domains, with an MA scheduled to start in 2003, Digital culture and technology. This course will be strongly interdisciplinary, with contributions from specialists in engineering, music, film, computing, education and law.
"The impetus came partly from colleagues in the commercial world, who complain that they either get people with technical web knowledge who are not 'creative', or more creative people who do not have the technical know-how," says Trudi Darby, senior assistant college secretary. "Once people get through their first degrees, the barriers between arts, science and engineering are becoming more fluid. People need skills from both sides."
Helping artistic people to develop a good business understanding is one of the aims of the Creative and Media Enterprises MA at Warwick University, now in its third year. The course is an off-shoot of Warwick's well-established MA in European cultural policy and administration, and aims to provide a survival kit for the small creative company, drawing together what is often seen as a gap between creative and business thinking.
"The course gets people to think about what happens, say, when a team of three artists grows into a business of 10, with a turnover of £500,000," explains Chris Bilton, the course leader. "How do you retain the ideas and energy that made you exciting in the first place? How do you plan for the future, in business terms, when you're dealing in symbolic goods with no fixed value?"
The MA is strong on theory as well as practice, with a chance for students to undertake an action-based project. It attracts an international mix of students with business as well as arts backgrounds.
"Employment patterns are shifting, creativity is now the most 'fetishised' value, and it is becoming an essential skill to be able to traverse the middle ground between a left-of-centre outlook and commercially minded output," says a former student, Matt Hardisty, now a strategist at Naked, a communications agency in Clerkenwell, London. "The MA has helped me to maintain that balance, and has given me the confidence to take a more DIY or independent approach to life."Reuse content