Unusual courses: From Beckham to basking sharks

Today's students have a much wider selection of courses to choose from than ever before. James Morrison takes a look at some of the more obscure options
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The Independent Online

Having already offered degrees in science fiction, belly dancing and even David Beckham studies, British universities are fast losing their ability to shock. But if you were under the impression they had no surprises left in their armouries, think again: this year's range of new degree programmes is as varied, colourful and, occasionally, downright barmy as ever.

A glance through the latest set of undergraduate prospectuses reveals a cornucopia of ambitious new vocational courses. From building stage puppets or Chinese dragons on the University of Kent's new BA Honours in creative events through training as a super-sleuth on a foundation degree in crime investigation commissioned by the Metropolitan Police to, of all things, ghost-hunting in Coventry, the wealth of disciplines on offer is mind-boggling.

For outdoor types, there's also an embarrassment of riches. How about spending three years swimming with (basking) sharks off the Cornish coast while reading for University College Falmouth's BA in marine and natural history photography? Or improving your handicap on one of Lincoln University's new BScs in golf studies?

Of course, there's a handful of cerebral options available too. If you're someone who's prone to puzzling over the lack of contentment in post-millennial consumer societies (or merely a glass half-empty type who struggles with the winter blues) you could do worse than enrolling on the University of East London's new BSc in happiness. Budding techies, meanwhile, might consider one of Lincoln's expanding array of hyper-specialist ICT degrees, including industry-tailored three-year programmes in everything from internet use to mobile computing.

It isn't only undergraduate degrees that are becoming more varied and specific either. Not to be outdone, post-grad studies are getting more wacky too - perhaps the pick of the crop of new courses this year being Coventry University's maiden two-year Masters in parapsychology.

Gaze beyond the bewildering variety of new degrees, though, and it becomes apparent there is one quality the majority of them share in common: that is, a bold attempt to plug a niche in the job market for graduates with practical expertise in the most esoteric of specialisms. It is this priority that, as it were, informs New Scotland Yard's intriguing new collaboration with Westminster University over a two-year course in crime investigation. There are places for 16 aspiring detectives to start the unique foundation degree this October, splitting their studies between textbook-based criminology modules at Westminster itself and more hands-on experience at the Crime Academy in Colindale, North London.

Equally vocational in their emphasis are many of the new options available in areas more traditionally associated with the arts and humanities. At Southampton Solent University, the respected BA in fine art and valuation - whose recent alumni include valuers at Sotheby's and Christie's - is being superseded by a more commercially hard-nosed degree in art, design and business.

Aspects of the old course, like auctioneering and valuation, are being incorporated into the new, which requires 230 UCAS points. But there will be added emphasis on reading the runes in the burgeoning global trade in fine arts and antiques, as course leader Dr Robin Jones explains: "It's been made more relevant to issues surrounding globalisation, cultural property and emerging markets in countries like India and China. Obviously there is some academic content but, as with other degrees at the university, there's a strong vocational element."

This pragmatic approach is also being applied to the two other new degrees which go to make up Southampton Solent's art, culture and society scheme: BA art and design combinations with cultural history and practices of display (exhibiting and window-dressing to the uninitiated).

The latter option shares many similarities with the new creative events: design and production degree being offered by the University of Kent at Medway, one of a growing number of programmes to consciously eschew the campus teaching environment in favour of a more 'industry-like' setting. In preparation for this autumn's maiden intake, the former Victory Centre at Chatham Historic Dockyard is being transformed into a customised design studio and workshop - not to mention reverting to its evocative 19th-century name of "the galvanizing shop".

Programme director Gavin Carver says the degree was conceived in response to a growing demand for professional event organisers and production staff for everything from traditional theatre through street carnivals to stage management at black-tie award ceremonies and corporate soirees.

"This is the first degree in the country to have this title, and unlike others elsewhere it won't only focus on the event production end of things," he explains. "Instead, there will be a large number of projects with a practical aspect to them. The students will initially have to organise a small personal festivity, and they will move through various stages, perhaps starting with some 3D modelling and progressing through puppet and set-making to using some kind of motorised transport. The idea is that the events they design will actually take place, whether on-site here or in the streets in and around Chatham or further afield."

Far from being modest in its expectations for year one, the course is setting its standards rather higher: Carver says applicants need not apply if they have fewer than 280 UCAS points (equivalent to two Bs and a C at A-level). He adds: "We are hoping to attract applicants from a wide variety of backgrounds - from design people to those who are more advertising or marketing-orientated."

The growing emphasis on entrepreneurship, as well as artistry, on courses linked to the cultural sector is reflected in the welter of new degrees focusing on music and the mushrooming field of electronic entertainment. Only a few years back, traditionalists looked on aghast as universities took their first tentative steps into the realms of pop music, sheepishly programming modules on the influence of The Beatles on the Sixties zeitgeist or the evolution of jazz from bebop to Miles Davis. This year sees the arrival of the first fully fledged degree in music and entertainment management: a no-nonsense, Pop Idol-inspired grounding in the practicalities of contract and copyright law; "interpreting financial data"; and that darkest of arts, marketing. Among those delivering the programme, at the University of Hertfordshire, is Simon Morgan, a former studio engineer for chart acts including Massive Attack.

Meanwhile, both Lincoln and Derby universities are about to launch specialist degrees in various aspects of multimedia gaming. The latter's new BA in computer games modelling and animation has been developed in partnership with locally based company Core Design - the firm responsible for programming the pneumatic curves of Lara Croft for the original games in the iconic Tomb Raider series.

For those more interested in sport, but who see the plethora of football-related degrees to have emerged in recent years as a little passé, look no further than Lincoln's twin golf studies options - one specialising in sports development and coaching and the other sport and exercise science - or its more general BSc in sports business management. All three options require a modest 200 UCAS points (two A-levels at grade B), but, be warned, unlike on many of today's courses, general studies isn't accepted. The sports business course adopts an unashamedly commercial approach, focusing less on soccer or tennis and more on what the prospectus describes as "the enormous potential sport has to generate and regenerate economic wealth". It's not all about playing hardball the Alan Sugar or Roman Abramovich way, though: alongside more business-centred options, modules cover everything from the banal (sport administration) to the ethical (impact of sport on the environment).

If all this still sounds too cut-throat for your liking, how about something a little more mellow - hippyish even? The University of East London is currently recruiting for the UK's first degree in positive psychology (or happiness, as its marketing department describes it), and a new BSc in acupuncture. Meanwhile, those canny folk at Lincoln (yes, them again) have a new BSc in herbal medicine.

Dr Rachel George, programme leader of UEL's BSc in psychology for personal and professional development, to use its full title, is adamant that it is far from the Mickey Mouse blend of Oprah Winfrey and Buddhist meditation cynics might expect.

Among the options available on the course are a range of modules designed to prepare students for working in people-related professions beside psychology itself - from ones focusing on leadership and conflict resolution to the rather more nebulous psychology of well-being.

"There are lots of devils' advocates at our own university with sceptical opinions on this, but, while we will be looking at pop psychology, when people look closely at the books we recommend they read while on the course they'll be able to see that they are properly validated ones," Dr Rachel explains. "We know psychology is one of the most popular subjects for people to take as a first degree, but normal courses tend to mainly teach you the traditional techniques used by practitioners. We are trying to respond to the wider market emerging for people to look at psychology as a way of enhancing their own lives."

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