Masters Degrees: Education for the sake of it

He's broke - and the course won't help his career. Nick Jackson explains why he's back in academia
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The Independent Online

It is 3am and two-year-old Lola is having nightmares. Enter Nick, housemate and playmate, to try to coax her back to sleep. I do not make a reassuring sight. Bleary-eyed from tiredness, goggle-eyed from caffeine, and every sinew straining from stress, I carry her in to her mum's bed before getting back to my MSc essay, due in the next day, downstairs.

They say that your student years are the best of your life. Not for me. I left higher education the proud owner of the top 2:2 in my year, merrily giving the bird to dons and student bops and swearing never to return. Last year I signed up for an MSc in nationalism and ethnic conflict at Birkbeck College, University of London. What am I doing back?

It all started, as things do, with a kiss. An illicit snuggle with a Kurdish girl on a Turkish train in the 1990s started an interest in all things Kurdish, and with it an interest in the politics and wars that go with ethnic identity. Later, working in Afghanistan, it was noticeable that the Islamic fundamentalists who fought for and against the Taliban identified themselves not by differences in doctrine but ethnicity: Pashtun versus Tajik.

There are other places to find out about these things than a university, of course. As a student I took an ill-fated excursion to south-eastern Turkey to find out more about the Kurds. Half a dozen arrests and a worrying military interrogation in Batman later, it seemed to make sense to do research from the safety of the library. There is a lot of fun to be had in libraries on your own, I found, but being big places it is comforting to have a lecturer to guide you round them.

The lecturers on the MSc course make a nice, if almost comically different, combination. One delivers lectures with notes so complete the lecture simply links together the ideas, the literature meticulously name checked and analysed. The other is fond of an expansive, enthusiastic style that sometimes feels like a gallop through war, politics, and society: over there liberalism, over here realism, and that's militarism on the right. You either leave inspired or utterly confused.

Reassuringly, some of the professionals seem just as bewildered. With the Iraq disaster neo-conservatism is looking rather old hat and Kissinger and the Realists famously failed to foresee the post-Communist world. Rather like in finance, you can make some sense of the world, but do not try to second guess it.

Two nights of lectures and seminars a week, plus essays, can feel like a guilty distraction from real life, but sometimes a welcome one. Health experts always recommend a trip to the gym after work, although I've never met anyone who actually does it, but a mental workout is just as good at reinvigorating you. Another student, on a different course, complained to tutors after the summer term ended up involving only one tutorial. In the politics school there is a similar summer hiatus, but with a 15,000 word dissertation to get done and a worrying amount of reading to catch up on, I think I'll be able to bear it.

In fact, it takes an embarrassing amount of time just to get the essays done. As a journalist, I expected to be able to stroll back into writing academic essays. I was wrong. "Journalistic" is one of an academic's worst insults, "academic" a similar sin for a journalist. Overcompensating out of a fear of being lightweight, the end result was a turgid soup of arguments and references with very little concern for the bigger picture. And I had forgotten how hard it can be to structure your reply. Questions like "why do soldiers fight?" squat on the top of the page, daring you to try to answer them. Where do you begin? More than with a feature you have to build an essay from the bottom up, paragraphs becoming points becoming sentences. I hope I got better: I get my results back next week.

The essays were a doddle compared to the fees. Although at £2,000 a year over two years Birkbeck's course is a steal - similar courses at some other London colleges cost over £12,000 a year - paying for the course meant cutting some naughty pleasures out of life: less drinking, no smoking (almost), and going for walks instead of to the movies. Even so, a freelancer's life can be precarious at the best of times and when something goes wrong, as it did the week before my fees were due, it goes badly wrong. But aside from one stern woman in the registry, the college was understanding and arranged for me to pay late.

I'm far from alone in my renewed enthusiasm for higher education. I know five other people studying at Birkbeck, most of them on Masters programmes and most utterly uninspired by higher education the first time round. In these days of skills rather than education we are told that you cannot get on without more and more qualifications. What is interesting is that none of them are doing this for their career but for fun.

After a friend's graduation ceremony at Birkbeck, a philosophy lecturer talked about the difference between teaching an average class of undergraduates and his part-timers at the college. In the first class, he said, half the class would be half asleep on desks or texting friends, but with part-timers and postgraduates he got their full attention. They seemed ready to jump on anything he said.

In my lectures a few are doing it for their career, more for fun, but all are there because they want to be there. As an undergraduate leaned on by my parents to get that all important piece of paper it was all too easy to get lost in the parties, politics, and all-consuming adolescence of the thing. As a Masters student that has changed. I am left with just the study and the curiosity and the reaching to understand.

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