We recently joined Dr Damien Short, Director of the Human Rights Consortium (HRC) and a Senior Lecturer in Human Rights at the School of Advanced Study, to discuss the renowned MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights.

Robert Salmon - Ship in Storm

Robert Salmon – Ship in Storm

In a world facing the potential ‘perfect storm’ of climate change, resource depletion and financial insecurity the struggle to guarantee basic human rights couldn’t be more important. Put simply, the world needs human rights advocates and activists arguably now more than ever. As a critically engaged activist scholar, this is something I strongly believe and which infuses my research and teaching. Consequently, this is reflected in the content of our MA.

The degree was born out of the key human rights issues brought to light through the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Dr Damien Short

Dr Damien Short

The MA is the longest running interdisciplinary practice-oriented MA in Human Rights in the UK, and quite possibly in the world. In 2010, the growing interest in human rights in the School of Advanced Study led to the creation of the Human Rights Consortium (HRC).

In 2012 I became the Director of the HRC and, naturally enough, a relationship developed between the new projects we launched with the HRC and the content of the MA teaching. In particular, the new cutting-edge HRC research projects on the human rights implications of ‘extreme energy’ (fracking, the tar sands etc.), the ‘Ecocide Project’ and ‘Corporate Power and Human Rights’, now feed into our teaching, reinvigorating the MA’s content.

Why was it important to reposition the MA?

While the MA has always had a truly international focus, its location in the Institute of Commonwealth Studies sometimes caused confusion amongst students. Occasionally they would ask, ‘Will our focus be on human rights in the Commonwealth only?’

The answer was always a resounding ‘no’, but given such feedback, coupled with the development of the HRC’s international focussed research projects, it was decided that the MA should be offered principally by the HRC where it would benefit from its cutting-edge international research. We wanted to ensure that the students felt like they could benefit from, and feed into, the HRC’s activities. Since the shift, the HRC has worked closely with both MA and PhD students to provide them with the experience of research promotion and dissemination, either through formal research and communications placements (20 ECTS) as part of their programme of study or through more informal collaborations.

Students have an open invitation to blog, organise and attend events, and interact and assist with their tutors’ current academic research. Many students have found this interaction invaluable and a unique way to begin a career in human rights research and practice.  In sum, the HRC aims to foster a stimulating environment for teaching, learning and research at all levels and the MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights is now a crucial element of this endeavour.

In what way does this course differ to others?

The vocational training and practice-oriented nature of the MA programme is central to our teaching philosophy and methodology.  The teaching staff are experienced human rights researchers, activists and advocates who have worked for many years with key organisations such as the United Nations, Amnesty International, Minority Rights Group, Survival International and Friends of the Earth, while regularly advising governments on human rights issues. The academic and practice-oriented experience and expertise of our staff significantly informs the MA teaching content and methodology.  Indeed, alongside traditional lectures and seminars students will take part in advocacy, lobbying and activism workshops, funding proposal design and presentation training sessions, case-based learning and adversarial debating exercises – including mock-trials and ‘People’s Tribunals’, and ‘Human Rights Impact Assessment’ design and delivery workshops. Many of these sessions are run by human rights practitioners from NGOs and international agencies we have collaborated with since 1996 and for whom many of our students end up working.

Unlike those larger institutions that cater more for undergraduates, our team of specialist human rights researchers only train post-graduates. Furthermore, unburdened by the significant overheads associated with teaching large numbers of undergraduates, we offer our MA programme at a much lower cost than other human rights programmes in London. Our size, and postgraduate-only focus, also means that our designated ‘student officer’ can truly focus on meeting the various needs of our human rights students, a role which contributes so much to the ‘family feel’ that so many students have commented on favourably over the years.

Why is it important to study both through the traditional academic routes as well as in practical environments?

Our practice-oriented, ‘hands on’ teaching and learning environment provides vital training for students wishing to enter the human rights practitioner workplace, whether for NGOs, charities, or international agencies like the UN; local or national governments, or even within corporate social responsibility departments of large multinationals. Our specific vocational training on everything from fundraising to lobbying and researching, especially alongside a human rights research placement offered with the HRC, greatly enhances a student’s employment prospects in this field.

What background should I have and where will the course lead me to?

Students usually come to us as graduates, some with little or no direct experience working in the field of human rights, and some with a considerable amount but who want to improve their career prospects. However all come with a strong commitment to the idea of promoting human rights and ‘making a difference’. The vast majority of MA graduates go on to work for NGOs, charities, international agencies and governments, while some go on to further study – many of my PhD students are former MA alumni and, many go on to become co-investigators and collaborators on my research projects.


For further information and how to apply to the ‘MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights’ Click here

If you would like to find out about what our alumni are doing now, Click here

If you would like to know more about Dr Damien Shorts work at SAS, Click Here