In defence of the inapplicable

Despite the fad for skills-based education, a growing number of MA students are pursuing knowledge as an end in itself, writes Emma Haughton
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The Independent Online

Why do people undertake a taught postgraduate degree? There will always be a variety of answers, but most will have a distinctly vocational bent. An MA or an MSc usually provides a launch pad into further research, or a chance to climb another rung up the career ladder at work.

Why do people undertake a taught postgraduate degree? There will always be a variety of answers, but most will have a distinctly vocational bent. An MA or an MSc usually provides a launch pad into further research, or a chance to climb another rung up the career ladder at work.

But not always. Across the country, a thriving minority of postgraduate courses offer those with a bit of time on their hands the chance simply to indulge a personal interest or undertake an element of self-development. John Tanner, for instance, is a retired businessman, one of a number of retirees on the University of Newcastle's MA in North East History. Tapping into the surge of interest in regional history, the course gives students a chance to explore the maritime, industrial, political and cultural history of the region.

"The amateur study of history has become one of my favourite pursuits, but the knowledge I had picked up in the subject over the years was fairly superficial," says Tanner. "I dipped into whatever caught my interest at the time and pursued little in depth, so I reasoned that without academic discipline and formal training – for example, in research methods – I'd have been unlikely to develop it further." But one of the key reasons for his choosing the course was its focus on the North-east. "Although not 'born and bred' locally, I've lived in the area for 30 years and I'm fascinated by the huge, but little-understood, contribution it has made to the national well-being."

Lancaster University offers what is probably an even more esoteric new masters degree, entitled Ruskin and the Cultural Tour. The second Ruskin MA to emanate from the university, it gives students the chance to follow the journeys of one of Britain's most influential tourists, and features a free week-long coach excursion to northern France to learn about Gothic architecture.

"Most people have to think very hard before embarking on something so specific – an academic gap year, so to speak – and tend to have an eye on skills and relevance," says the programme director Professor Keith Hanley, "but this course is essentially about self-development and the resuscitation of liberal education. Ruskin is a very suitable person to be studying in this context, in that his ideas on culture and education are very similar." Hanley freely admits that the course doesn't pretend to have any vocational relevance. "What we've done is invent something totally inapplicable in a way. Our students really come on the course out of personal interest. That said, Ruskin can impact on your career in lateral ways – you start exploring things you know a bit about, and then find they take you off in all sorts of unexpected directions."

Applicable or not, with a dozen students enrolled for the autumn it's also proving surprisingly popular. "We are attracting the kind of people who are economically more able to benefit from this, such as mature students," says Hanley, "but we also have people from diverse professional backgrounds, such as teachers, lecturers, and even a potter and a book illustrator. Some come with a semi-professional interest in Ruskin, which they want to amplify and use to enrich their work."

Other courses give students a chance to combine a personal interest with the practical development of some skill. Newcastle's MA in Writing Poetry, for instance, offers a combination of workshops and consultations to help students develop their own writing, as well as exposure to visiting poets, a course on poetry publishing, and various literature modules, including three American women poets, post-war American poetry, Caribbean poetry and an introduction to modern poetry.

"It's aimed at people who have been writing poetry and have possibly published a bit and now want to further develop their work," says Professor Linda Anderson, head of the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics. "They're very serious about their writing and they want something a bit more structured than the occasional workshop or week-long course. We give them a chance to be part of a group, to learn to be a critical reader of other people's work, as well as receive sound critical feedback on their own, rather than bland praise or encouragement."

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