Studies in the Zeitgeist

Universities are introducing exciting masters degrees to reflect the changing world
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The Independent Online

This September, 40 students at King's College London will not solve the world's greatest problems. They may, however, be one small step closer. They will be the first intake on the King's College MA in human values and contemporary global ethics. Although it sounds like a fairly standard course in a university's moral-philosophy department, the fact that it is being taught out of the college's law school is a hint that there is more at stake than intellectual inquiry.

This September, 40 students at King's College London will not solve the world's greatest problems. They may, however, be one small step closer. They will be the first intake on the King's College MA in human values and contemporary global ethics. Although it sounds like a fairly standard course in a university's moral-philosophy department, the fact that it is being taught out of the college's law school is a hint that there is more at stake than intellectual inquiry.

"We designed a course that we would like to be done by world leaders, UN people, people in Greenpeace. It is a theoretical grounding for people who will be doing practical things in the world," says the course director, Professor Jonathan Glover. The course is itself a study in the Zeitgeist: globalisation, Americanisation, biotech engineering that allows human cloning - open any newspaper and you will see the course syllabus in black and white.

The degree is at the vanguard of a new movement in Britain's traditional universities - applying learning to the world in which we live. The old, established universities are tracking social trends and adding practical, vocational courses in those areas - a trick stolen from their former-polytechnic cousins.

A stone's throw from King's College, its ancient rival, University College London, will be welcoming the second year of students onto its MSc in crime science. It is aimed at preventing crime, largely through understanding how society works, and giving the police a more scientific methodology to their detection work. Most students are expected to work as analysts for the police and HM Customs and Excise. According to the course director, Professor Gloria Laycock, "it's about delivering immediate reductions in crime; we're not interested in how the criminal-justice system works or doesn't work. It's very outcome-focused."

The Zeitgeist course exists outside the metropolis, too. In the gothic halls of Edinburgh, future lawyers are being trained in an area of the law that has exploded in recent years - intellectual property. The internet boom, the possibilities of artificial intelligence and the incalculable financial returns from biotechnology mean that, in future years, those with the university's new LLM in innovation, technology and the law will be in high demand. "The relationship between the law and technology is an uneasy one," says course director Dr Graeme Laurie. "Technology is moving so fast that there is a real sense of loss of control in our lives and the law is not running fast enough to keep up. In addition, intellectual property law is very sexy worldwide. More than half the applicants for next year are from Asia - it's all commerce-driven."

The centre recently played host to a lecture on the illegal internet file-sharing of music, given by Alex Kapranos, lead singer of über-hip rock group Franz Ferdinand. Any Edinburgh students who find rock music and billions of pounds unexciting can apply to transfer to the MSc in underwater archaeology. Scuba-diving trips to exotic foreign locations are, I'm afraid, compulsory.

The global village keeps cropping up in the social-Zeitgeist course and Warwick University is cashing in. The university's MA in English-language teaching and multimedia trains Tefl teachers in instruction methods for distance learning. This includes many regions of great commercial opportunity. "In China, for instance, there's virtually no chance of speaking English outside the classroom; they can't even get hold of an English newspaper," says course tutor Dr Hilary Nesi.

And proof, if more were needed, that the old universities are following the new: the London School of Economics is teaching that ridiculed subject, media studies. "Yes, it's true the media treats us that way," says Professor Robin Mansell, director of the LSE's media and communications department, which was established last year. "But media and communications networks are absolutely essential to the way people come to know about themselves, and if we look at issues such as globalisation through the lens of the media, that yields very interesting results." The LSE teaching media studies? For some, it must represent the beginning of the end.

education@independent.co.uk

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