London University has launched a new MA asking what it means to be a citizen today

Globalisation is a word that describes many changes affecting the world today: a movement from self-reliant economies to integrated world markets; a revolution in the ways we learn and communicate; the opening up of vast and fluid sources of labour. Perhaps most importantly, with the blurring of geographical boundaries, this 21st-century phenomenon has renewed interest in a question that goes back to the Greeks: what does it mean to be a citizen?

This month the University of London launches a new MA in history and citizenship education, a course that aims to keep pace with the changing needs of increasingly multicultural societies. The degree has been developed by the Institute of Education and will be taught through the university's external programme, reflecting the truly global outlook of the course.

Indeed, more than 34,000 students in over 180 countries study on London's distance-learning scheme, and the pilot module of the new postgraduate degree last year attracted students from as far a field as Mexico and Turkmenistan. So just what is "citizenship"?

Dr Hugh Starkey should know. Not only is he the course leader for London's new MA, but he also co-authored the book Changing Citizenship: Democracy and Inclusion in Education. "Citizenship," he begins, "is a feeling, status, and practice. It's a feeling of belonging; it may be a status of nationality; and acting like a citizen: that's a practice. What it's really about is inclusion in a democratic community. The most fundamental principle is human rights. It's about equal rights and equal dignity."

Though the course can be taken as a joint degree, where the focus is on the relationship between citizenship and history, the programme is essentially built around a composition of modules. All candidates study for the core module, on citizenship and history in the curriculum. But from then on students can specialise as they wish, depending upon what dissertation topic they pursue and which MA they wish to qualify with: history education, citizenship education, or a combination of the two.

"Citizenship and history often go together," says Dr Starkey. "There are very good reasons for this. Through history we learn about democracy, struggles, politics, etc, and what is history if it's not telling a story? We look at questions such as, 'how have we arrived where we've got to now?' - the emphasis being upon becoming democratic and moving from absolutism to democracy. It's about knowing the past and acting in the present in order to build the future. The main thing is to offer flexibility depending on the needs of the students, so it is they who decide which MA they want to go for."

Any individual module on the course can even be taken as a stand-alone CPD (Continued Professional Development) course, which may look like a good option for teachers who want to give themselves the competitive edge. Since 2002, all schools have been required to put citizenship classes on their curricula and, as Starkey says, it's a safe bet that only a third of schools have staff qualified to teach the subject.

With this in mind, the DfES sponsored 10 teachers through London's pilot course, and recently announced that candidates taking the teaching and assessment in citizenship module would be eligible for generous bursaries. Christopher Olapade, who teaches at a tertiary college in Nigeria, took part in the pilot scheme, and begins the course proper this month. "I was really impressed by it," he says, "in particular the way the tutor handled things and the simplicity of the course materials."

Olapade was already teaching citizenship classes in Africa when he began the pilot module and he believes passionately in the value of citizenship education. "To me," he says, "citizenship means the relationship between a country and her citizens, what the country does to improve the totality of the life of her citizens and what the citizens do to support their country. Pupils need to be educated about the enjoyment of their rights and, at the same time, their responsibility to fellow citizens of their country."

Professor Starkey is similarly passionate. "Citizenship education is education that underpins democracy. Despite wars, despite terrorism, the world is getting more democratic. And, with the opening up of Central and Eastern Europe, and China, there's an increasing world interest in citizenship.

"It's about teaching fundamental principles, not 'Britishness'. Reducing citizenship to nationality is a 19th-century idea. In the 21st Century citizenship is cosmopolitan citizenship; thinking and acting as a citizen, locally and globally."