A new distance learning MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies is being launched this summer by the University of London to start in October 2014. We spoke to one of the Programme Directors, Dr David James Cantor. Applications are open now.
Who is the course aimed at? There are a number of key groups who would benefit from this degree course. For those who already work in the refugee and humanitarian area - in either the northern or southern hemisphere - the Masters qualification would enable them to progress to higher level work within the sector, whether in multilaterals, governments or NGOs. In other cases, the Masters may be used by sector professionals to provide a deeper understanding of the issues facing refugees and refugee aid organisations. The programme will also appeal to people hoping to establish themselves in the sector – these could be people making a career change or those at an early stage of their careers – graduates, in particular, looking to obtain a Masters qualification that will enable them to get started in the sector. Even before the course has been launched, we have received a very positive response from the key organisations in the field and we would expect our alumni to develop careers with them.
What difference will the ‘distance-learning’ design make? This is the first ever distance learning postgraduate course to be run on refugee and forced migration studies and we believe that it will attract a global audience. It is a sad fact that the issues underpinning refugees and forced migration are, unfortunately, not confined to any single part of the planet. The distance learning foundation of the course will enable students from many different parts of the world to provide distinct perspectives and input.
Distance learning will also ensure that the course will be an affordable option for students in the developing world. They won’t have to pay international student fees, deal with the bureaucracy and cost of visas, air fares, accommodation, or give up professional or domestic commitments. In this way we are hoping to create a virtual meeting place for students from all parts of the globe. Distance learning also means that we can more easily enrol leading specialists and practitioners who will provide expert knowledge.
In these ways, we intend to offer democratic access to the course and recruit students and experts from around the world. In fact, this is one of the reasons we decided against requiring a ‘summer school’ element that is often a feature of distance learning courses. We prefer to adopt an approach that is more inclusive, in which people from different backgrounds and parts of the world can be equally involved.
Do you see any draw backs with distance learning? Some students of course would want face to face contact with each other and with tutors. Nevertheless, our programme will create learning groups that will encourage virtual peer to peer interaction. One of the exciting things about the course is the way that it will bring together people from different parts of the world with rich and different experiences of the issues we will be considering.
How has the technology behind distance learning changed? It has improved a lot – especially in the way books, documents and other material can be made easily available online. Students will receive one required textbook – everything else is online. We realise that technology is now available for things such as virtual lectures, videos, and Skype tuition, but we have decided to go mainly for ‘narrow band width’ applications that don’t require people in different time zones to be online at the same time. In some countries, it isn’t easy or cheap to download videos, for example, and so the number of video downloads on the course is minimal. This is another way in which we have sought to make the programme inclusive for all and flexible enough for those already working.
Is the course academic or vocational? The course has a very strong academic component that is informed by the world-leading expertise of those designing and teaching the modules. Unlike many other postgraduate programmes, however, this is complemented by a consistent focus on developing students’ vocational skills in a way that will readily enable them to work in this field.
To give an example, one highly vocational element of the course is the ‘practice based’ module. In this module students will receive a rounded and practical exploration of some of the key vocational elements involved with the sector. During the module topics such as advocacy, campaigning, fundraising, legal strategy and communications will be studied and students can then choose to focus on a specific area for the examined piece of work. In the case of fundraising, for example, a student could submit a funding bid that will be assessed by a tutor with significant practical experience in the grants and trusts sector. Thus the programme is designed to develop both academic and vocational skills and experience. This means that alumni will be better able to show that they have practical skills to potential employers, making them stand out in a competitive job market.
What choice of topics do students have? Students take two compulsory modules in their first year. One is ‘Protecting Human Rights, Refugees and Displaced Persons in International Law’ and gives a good legal grounding to students on the assumption that some will likely come onto the course without any legal background. The second is ‘An Introduction to Refugee and Forced Migration Studies’ which does what it says on the tin – students get to grips with perspectives on refugee issues from disciplines such as anthropology, international relations, development studies and use these to study refugee phenomena.
In the second year, students choose four optional modules from a selection of eight. These deal with a good variety of interesting topics, and give students the opportunity to develop expertise in areas of interest to them. Two of the modules look at refugee protection issues in particular regions, Europe or Africa and Latin America. Another five modules deal with more thematic topics; these include internally displaced persons and war, statelessness, advanced refugee law, gender in the refugee context, refugee healthcare and humanitarian emergencies. Finally, there is also the ‘practice based’ optional module that I already mentioned, as well as the compulsory research methods and dissertation module, in which students have the opportunity to specialise in and conduct their own independent research on a particular topic of their own choice, supervised by a specialist in that area.
Can you tell me a bit more about the vocational aspects? Like any academic course it has a number of other vocational elements in addition to the ‘practice based’ module. One of the underlying themes of the course design, for example, is an emphasis on presenting arguments. We are aware that in many different arenas concerned with refugees – from presenting in court to lobbying governments – being able to make powerful arguments is a key vocational skill. Other skills on the course, such as analysis, research and writing, also have clear vocational applications.
Likewise, many of our guest lecturers combine both outstanding field experience and world class scholarly reputations. As but one example, we are delighted that Jean-François Durieux will be bringing his 30 years’ experience of work in the refugee field with UNHCR in Sudan, Burma, Central America and Headquarters to our modules.
What do you see as the main appeal behind your course? Here at the Refugee Law Initiative, we see our new MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies as a unique programme that will bring together leading scholars, high-level practitioners, advocates and students in the refugee field. It aims to create a rich learning environment which enables students to engage with refugee issues beyond the legal, to encompass conceptual understanding and practical knowledge about how organisations provide assistance on the ground. Students will gain insights into the refugee field from an international perspective, making this degree ideal for those seeking to find work in the sector.
The course will open for applications on July 1st 2014. You can find out more here: www.londoninternational.ac.uk/refugee-migration You can also read an online article by Dr Cantor on the novel topic of displacement caused by organised crime http://rsq.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/06/10/rsq.hdu008.full.pdf+html