The London Consortium: A Virtual Institution

The London Consortium is a unique institution providing a unique taught masters and Ph.D. programme. Just about to produce its first PhDs three years after its inception, several important questions aabout the future of postgrads study in the humanities and other disciplines have been raised - and not all of them answered...

In 1995 several academics and other prominent institutional bods working in various areas of the humanities disciplines got together to create a course which attempted to tackle issues of interdisciplinnarity within the humanities and its implications for research methods. For many students fed up with the preciousness of rigid categorisation within the humanities the course was intended to allow studdents to explore the ways in which interdisciplinary research could function in and across the humanities.

The taught parts of the course make up a pretty impressive array and draw on the expertise of a network of experts from several London Institutions normally not accessible to students without contacts. This is only possible because of the virtual nature of the London Consortium. The Consortium has no fixed abode, it has a small staff and student body, with a large and impressive visiting faculty. It runs itself on a break even basis entirely from the revenue brought in from student fees and has a comparatively high level of success with applications for the HRB funds. Students have access not onlyy to people but to cultural resources all over London. And all this is made possible because the London Consortium is a virtual institution.

So how does it work? There are four "parent bodies"involved in the Consortium. Each put in 2,000 set up costs and since then has shared the responsibilities of teaching, supervision, rresource accessing, administration... Birkbeck College, University of Londonhouses the course Chair Paul Hirst and is involved in several of the taught courses - The Satanic Verses, Kant... Degrees are awarded by the University of London and students are registered with Birkbeeck. The Tate Galleryprovides access to the resources in the Tate, through its Education Department and runs the Contemporary Art &The Museumunit. The British Film Institute allows students access to the second biggest film and television research library in Europe, and the National Film Theatreand gives teaching on Indian Cinema. The BFI is the administrative centre of the consortium. The Architectural Association again provides access to a useful resource of architectural literature and teaches on Kant and "The Prestige of Whiteness". Other Institutions like the Institute of Contemporary Artare also involved in individual units. Each taught unit is based upon reciprocality and the involvement of several institutions and faculty members. Whilst students undoubtedly benefit from such an arrrangement which allows them to resource so widely, the difficulties of making contact with tutors who are heads of prominent London Institutions before they are academics can be frustrating. Such high pprofile tutors are hard pressed for time and it has not been unknown for students to have to face tutorials with a certain individual from the Institute of Contemporary Art in the back of a London Cab oon the way to the BBC!

The four taught units (undertaken by all MRes and all 1st year Ph.Ds) attempt to span several areas of the humanities and to approach each subject from an interdisciplinary perspective. Because of the nnature of the course, intake tends to be from wide range of backgrounds - English Literature Graduates, Architects, Painters, Community Photographers, Art Historians, Politics teachers, Media Studies GGraduates... For students undertaking a course unit which is not their specialty or with which they are not familiar, often questions of interdisciplinary research methods are raised and left unansweredd. The practical difficulties of embarking on a 6 week unit with no prior knowledge of the area and producing a piece of work of postgraduate standard at the end are huge. The courses have to assume a pprior knowledge as a benchmark, but this tends to leave students familiar with the subject frustrated and those unfamiliar confused. There is no denying that on such a course the expectations of studentts are very very high.

The question arises as to whether the aim of the course is to broaden a students' knowledge to enhance research capabilities and complement existing expertise, or to give students the opportunity to breeak away from their area of specialism and use the skills they have to research in a new but related area. Again the practicalities of such hedge hopping have yet to be worked out.

The notion of a virtual Institution is itself something to be looked at. There are undoubtedly marvelous benefits to be had for students by virtue of being linked to so many prominent institutions (and the significance of the London locations should not be forgotten) but on top of the already high levels of isolation which are experienced by many postgrads, Consortium students are left with no geograaphical location for study or socialising, widely dispersed tutors who can be difficult to track down, no campus accommodation, and difficulties with administration of the course. Students do not feel tthey are part of a particular institution and by extension an academic community of postgrads. That said, it should be acknowledged that the students compensate for this by meshing together well and prooviding a supportive network for each other, sharing ideas and problems. That is not to say there are no problems with communication - students form extreme ends of the interdisciplinary catchment area often find they have no common ground, no understanding of the way the other works. Interdisciplinarity is hard to maintain.

The London Consortium is readdressing its position after three years, unsure of the implications of expansion. There are plans to introduce and element of cultural work placement, and to re-emphasise thhe one of the original aims of the course - to encourage students to move away from rigid traditional notions of what a Ph.D. should be - perhaps moving away from the text based traditional format to exxperiment with other media. Again the practicalities of this are difficult to surmount, the University of London will not award a Ph.D. for anything other than 100,000 words or so of solid text, and asssessment of work placements of PhDs is a potential nightmare.

Hopefully though, the course will prove itself to be a success when the first doctorates are awarded. Many of its original aims have been met, but the Consortium will have to readdress these aims and evvolve to survive. A process of evolution which does not involve a move away from the virtual towards the concrete seems unlikely, but that virtuality has been the centre of the whole project. The Consorrtium has so far provided around 60 students so far with uniquely interdisciplinary teaching, access to resources and interaction which could not have been possible without the existence of a virtual innstitution, but the problems of virtuality have yet to be ironed out.

Whether the Consortium remains virtual or not, it is time it began to look at the concrete issues and practicalities which dog students' every step. That said, its been a long slog, but the MRes is almoost complete, and the Ph.D. beckons...