Study in hostilities: A novel MA is pulling in the students by combining intellectual learning with fine dining and prominent speakers

If you want to take a degree which combines tales of derring-do, fine dining and meeting some of the country's most distinguished generals and academics, the University of Buckingham has the one for you. This month sees the private university launch an MA in military history. It is a canny move that taps into the huge and growing interest in a once unfashionable subject and into a restless willingness to pay to pursue intellectual interests.

The first group of 26 students comes from a wide range of backgrounds and ages – a retired QC, a banker in his late thirties, a publisher in his forties – except that all are men. The class is full before its first year has started, and as many again were turned away. About half have not studied history formally before, although all have demonstrated a strong interest in military history, whether through reading, study or published material.

Buckingham is laying on the course at its London offices. "There was certainly a gap in the market for people who didn't want to go down the traditional route where the class was based at a university with students in their twenties," says Saul David, professor of war studies at Buckingham, who is supervising the degree with Gary Sheffield, professor of war studies at the University of Birmingham.

Superficially, the degree is a typically rigorous MA. Students have to take classes on research techniques, read a lot, attend lectures and write a 5,000-word interim essay which is the blueprint for a dissertation of up to 40,000 words. Students have already suggested dissertations as varied as the RAF in the Second World War and Tony Blair's wars. "The degree could open up new opportunities for people. In one or two cases, it's a potential career change," says David.

In fact, the degree is far from typical. A series of star speakers will give seminars accompanied by dinners in the august Romney room of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. The speakers include Antony Beevor, the best-selling author of books on Stalingrad, Berlin and D-Day; Professor Richard Holmes, well-known to television audiences, talking about the British soldier; Professor Michael Burleigh on insurgency from Malaya to al-Qa'ida; Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman on the Falklands war; and General Sir Mike Jackson, the former chief of the general staff, whose well lived-in face is also familiar to television audiences from wars in Bosnia and Iraq, who will dissect the Iraq campaign.

For students who crave to be published, a further inducement is that Buckingham has arranged for the literary agent Peter Robinson to represent the writer of the best dissertation. David expects that a few students will expand their dissertations into books or go on to do a PhD.

The gastronomic events have a novel purpose beyond providing an agreeable ambience for learning. Students are divided into two groups: those taking the degree full time, and those – called associates – who just attend the seminar dinners. Of the total number of students, 14 or 15 are taking the full MA and the rest are associates. David points out that it is possible to switch from being an associate to a full timer and he expects three or four associates to attend the formal lectures as well. Nearly all the associates are from the City. Full-time home students pay £5,500, while associates shell out £1,950 and foreign students have to find £9,200.

One full-time student is a banker in his late thirties who studied under Stephen Hawking, the famous cosmologist, for a Cambridge physics PhD. The banker, who requested anonymity because of rules governing what employees can say in public, will continue working while taking the degree. "I've always been interested in history, and this seemed the right thing at the right time," he says.

After completing his PhD, he worked first as a "quant" – City-speak for a boffin who devises complex trading programs and financial products – and now as a trader. "It's been a gradual dumbing down of everything I do," he says, laughing. "Spending all the time with spreadsheets and hanging out with traders doesn't provide enough intellectual stimulation."

For this student, the MA's design and the quality of the expert speakers are strong attractions. "They've put together an extremely good cast, and it's aimed at people like me." Would he consider a career switch and trade histograms for history? "I think I'll stick to amateur history, at least until I retire. But then, every trader needs an exit strategy," he says.

The degree helps to fill the academic gap between graduate degrees intended mainly for younger students and courses patronised by the comfortably retired. David understands the demand partly because he was a professional writer of history before he took his PhD in his early thirties. He has a string of books and television programmes on military history to his credit. But for him, the MA does more than just satisfy the intellectual curiosity of a handful of generally well-heeled amateurs: it also spreads the word about military history

In the 1970s and 1980s, military history was out of fashion, a consequence perhaps of the social attitudes which emerged in the 1960s and a reaction against Britain's fading imperial presence. It barely featured on most history syllabuses and was considered to be the preserve of ruddy-faced, bewhiskered gentlemen who'd been out East and seen a thing or two.

But, David argues, the tide has turned and the subject is respectable again. The change has much to do with a renewed emphasis on the importance of individuals in history. "War reveals the most extreme aspects of human behaviour. Military history is a reversion to what by nature people are most fascinated by. It relates to real people and the big men."

He believes public interest in the subject – there is a military history television channel – has prodded universities into taking it more seriously. That certainly seems to be true of Buckingham.

Other universities that run military history MAs

University of Chester

The course seeks to explain why wars occur, to highlight how warfare has changed through the ages and to show how the military interacts with wider human society. One year full-time and two to six years part-time.

University of Hull

Themes include the culture of warfare, the formation of armies and navies and weaponry, military strategy and defence, and the politics of warfare, from medieval to modern times. One year full-time and two years part-time.

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