For many, the term "consumer affairs" conjures up images of middle-aged housewives in knitted sweaters and quality guarantees on cereal packets. But the homespun championing of statutory rights popularised by Claire Rayner and Lynn Faulds Woods is about to turn professional – thanks to a new vocational postgraduate course part-funded by the European Commission.
The European Masters in Consumer Affairs, launching this autumn, is aimed at everyone from aspiring activists to government policy-makers and customer relations managers. It is intended to plug what the EC sees as a gap in the market for a gold-standard qualification focusing on consumer protection, as opposed to more business-orientated subjects such as commercial competition law.
Not that the new Masters has a narrow focus: the rigorous 18-month full-time programme comprises a dozen or more units, including courses in everything from building consumer loyalty to managing call centres to complaining effectively about poor service. It will also explore the trends towards ethical consumerism and increased regulation of financial markets spurred by the credit crisis.
"We've carried out a survey of European universities to see what's already available, other than programmes focusing on purely legal issues related to consumers," explains Ginette Nabavi, principal training administrator in the EC's Directorate General for Health and Consumers. "We were looking for rounded courses that examine everything from marketing to psychology, but there aren't any Masters doing this."
The new programme will be run by three consortia, each comprising up to five universities based in different EU member states. So far, Brunel University – teamed with Barcelona, Montpellier, Bologna and Romania's West Timisoara – is the only British institution involved.
Dr Christine Riefa, course convenor at Brunel, which offers established postgraduate programmes in related fields such as corporate brand management, says: "People currently working in the field are either generalists, or specialists in particular areas like law who learn about other aspects on the job. We're trying to create a new kind of professional – the MBA guy of consumer affairs."
Brunel students will be encouraged to split their time between universities in two different countries, reading for "dual awards" that will give them a full degree from each. These Erasmus-style arrangements will be facilitated by taxpayer-funded "mobility grants" of up to €3,000 a head.
Though all three consortia will cover the core elements of consumer protection, each will also specialise. Applicants who enrol through Brunel will focus on economics, law, marketing and psychology. But students can spend their third term on a placement tailored to their chosen career path – whether that be campaigning for NGOs or helping multinationals tackle consumer resistance.
The programme will be delivered through lectures and workshops, with emphasis placed on real-life scenarios such as the recent private pension crises or the controversy over Nestlé's alleged marketing of powdered baby milk in developing countries. And there's a clear incentive to enrol in year one: introductory subsidies by the EC mean that fees for the first intake will be capped at €2,000.
One applicant is Robert Chantry-Price, 65, European business support manager for Intertek Risk Assessment and Management, which advises manufacturers of toys and children's clothes on safety issues. "Having been with Intertek for five years and been closely involved with the regulatory side of product safety, I'd like to receive formal training," he says.
Also planning to apply is 22-year-old management and business administration undergraduate Justina Gudelyte, from Lithuania: "I would like to work in a non-profit or governmental organisation that deals with advocacy of consumer rights. To do this, I have to develop adequate knowledge about marketing and legal issues related to consumerism."
Britain's leading consumer rights pressure group, Which?, welcomes the new course. Louise Hanson, its head of campaigns, says: "We're all consumers and it's essential our perspective is at the heart of public policy debates."
"The idea of placing consumers at the centre of policy is relatively new," says Dr Riefa, "but given recent environmental concerns and the present economic crisis it's more relevant than ever."
For information on how to apply for the Brunel University European Masters in Consumers Affairs, visit www.brunel.ac.ukReuse content