Soup. It’s had a bad name lately. With the growth of soup kitchens and food banks, there are negative connotations. But the Human Rights Consortium (HRC) at the School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, has taken an innovative Detroit idea, originally conceived to drive urban regeneration, and turned it into a welcome dissertation support for Master’s students.

It’s a simple concept: you spread the word on social media (Twitter and Facebook), pitchers and interested parties turn up, pay £5 at the door, and listen to students pitch their human rights research proposal. Each pitcher has five minutes to present their project idea. The audience can then ask a maximum of two questions.

With the presentations over, food is served. While eating, people mull over the ideas and relative merits before voting on their favourite. The winner gets to take home all the money collected at the door and use it to fund activities to further their research. The only condition is that the victor write a short article on the outcomes of the research and allow the final dissertation to be shared in the HRC’s international Human Rights Researchers’ Network newsletter so the audience get to see the outcome of the research that it partly funded and voted for.

The HRC’s first ever SOUP, at Senate House on 3 June, attracted around 30 people to listen to pitches from five Master’s students, not just from SAS and the University of London. It was open to all students at any UK university doing a dissertation in human rights (MA/MSc/LLM) over the summer term and entries came from Sussex and York too. And it caught the interest of the national media. According to an article in The Independent newspaper, with controversy over the Conservative manifesto commitment to abolish the Human Rights Act, ‘It is certainly the right time to encourage research in this area.’

‘I was so impressed by the passion all the students showed for their research topic,’ says Dr Corinne Lennox HRC’s senior lecturer in human rights and the SOUP’s organiser. ‘We hope this will be the first of many Soup events that bring together human rights researchers across London and the UK.’

To say there was a frisson would be an understatement. It was a lively, warm event that brought learning to all. And the pitchers weren’t just there for the money. They enjoyed organising and sharing their ideas and said they welcomed the valuable feedback.

Research topics included a look at the impact of international law on sustainable development, human rights defenders and the issues that arise from ‘deterritorialisation’ – the uprooting experienced by the 200,000 or so Zimbabweans who relocated to the UK because of political instability in their own country.

But the strongest theme was women’s rights. Pip Christie, currently doing on the MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights course at SAS, spoke about Argentina’s machismo culture and its relationship to levels of violence against women, and Niresh Umaichelvam from City University put forward her proposal to investigate domestic violence from a South Asian woman’s perspective. And it was this theme that produced the winner.

Hugging her certificate and the £200 prize money, Niresh Umaichelvam is looking forward to continuing her research among south London’s Sri Lankan community. Among the questions she wants the UK jurisdiction to answer is: ‘Can the UK afford a more effective system of protection for victims of domestic abuse while respecting cultural barriers and traditions?’ And what of forced marriages? Currently only 14 of the UK’s courts can hear such cases.

Declaring herself grateful to be given the chance to participate and meet the other ‘pitchers’ she says, ‘I was absolutely thrilled and so grateful to have won. It gave me a real confidence boost, particularly talking to other human rights researchers and academics at the event and knowing that I too can follow in their footsteps. The award is an achievement I will cherish wholeheartedly and the funds will really help me with travelling costs to visit support centres such as Hopscotch and Refuge, and specialist law firms dealing with domestic violence. Getting the chance to speak with specialist lawyers who advise victimised women in this area is a highly sensitive topic, and by speaking directly to these lawyers I hope to find out how they advise while respecting the clients’ cultural values, which will offer a great insight to me for the purposes of my research.’

So how was the soup? Well, there wasn’t any. Alas the Senate House caterers couldn’t provide – wrong time of year – but there were delicious mini-bowls of Moroccan tagine, fish and chips, chicken and couscous and, to round off the communal meal, cubes of tiramisu.

‘It is very challenging to get funding for human rights research and advocacy work,’ says Dr Lennox. ‘At a time when the Human Rights Act is being dragged through the headlines, these students show that human rights are relevant to many topics of inquiry and an important tool for analysis.’

Maureen McTaggart is media and public relations officer at the School of Advanced Study. She has written extensively about technology for learning and teaching in primary and secondary schools. Her most recent publication is Learning with Mobile and Handheld Technologies, co-edited with John Galloway and Merlin John.