The early morning specialist

For reasons I won’t bother you with, I recently looked at the degree courses on offer at a respected English university; I won’t name it, this isn’t about that university. Anyway, if you want to study there you have a choice of 319 undergraduate courses for which you could apply. Some are standard enough – you know, mathematics, economics, computer science, that kind of thing. Others are more recherché, like digital electronics, or landscape architecture. Others again are combinations of things, like history with Dutch, or French with Luxembourg studies.

As I was surveying these, I began to wonder what this list was telling us about university education, and how exactly we expect young people to approach their education, life and career plans as they leave school. Do we need them to have detailed, specialised and settled views of what they want to do in life and work?

According to a report in the Irish Times, the Irish universities are about to change this pattern. A working group set up by the university presidents is set to recommend a ‘wider availability of general entry courses’, thereby radically reducing the number of entry options and allowing students to specialise after the first year. Perhaps this should set the scene for the re-evaluation of higher education more generally. Is there a case for suggesting that a university should offer only, say, ten undergraduate access routes, and allow students to make up their minds about how to specialise from there after they have begun their studies? This would not be an argument against vocational or professional programmes, but rather an argument for a more mature process leading students to their preferred careers. At any rate it is time to look again at how students are asked to make their higher education choices. A menu of 319 options is not really sensible.

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6 Comments on “The early morning specialist”

  1. V.H Says:

    Happy New Year.

    What problem is this the answer. And who exactly has the problem. I suspect, if asked, that most people who have passed through any university would say the issue is one of a lack in flexibility not the plethora of available courses.
    Universities tend to ask if a person is in a job when they send out their surveys. Their great up-tick in the advertising is in how many are employed six months after graduation. But isn’t the true question the one that asks if they are in a job on the track towards their goal.
    Not so long ago those that went to college without a few thousand acres behind them had the army, the lower church and 2nd level education as options. So a better question would be have things materially changed when it remains impossible to progress in some areas without vast resources behind you. And a year of job placement is nothing more than shifting costs from the corporation to the student all while handing a ridiculous amount of free cash the the college who is acting in the roll of procurer.

  2. cormac Says:

    Happy New Year Ferdinand. I’ve only seen summaries of Prof Hyland’s report, but it makes a lot of sense to me. General-entry schemes for courses like science and engineering make it easier for students to choose the particular path that best suits their abilities and interests as they mature (I speak from experience; I started in medicine, hated it, and left for science).
    You can see the problem very clearly in the IoT sector; because of a more vocational slant, courses tend to specialise from entry point, with consequent retention problems because a significant fraction of students find themselves on the wrong course.
    So i think the report makes sense for the universities, while it harder to see a solution for the Institutes…

  3. Al Says:

    Would it not make better sense for students to enter third level a year later after some form of public service year?
    In this way they would have further (or even higher) life experience from which to refine their choices.
    Does this development not implicitly show that second level is failing somewhat in personal development/ career guidance/ specialisation development?


  4. It’s simply another part of ‘education inflation’ with which the western world has become enamoured. Get kids to pay another years fees, keeps them off the live register for another year etc. Back in the day, when we actually had fairly rigourous full-subject degrees, there was never a need for student to have a ‘taster year’ before deciding what to do. They entered a degree course and when finished, could then specialise by taking an additional diploma – if they wanted – or they could go straight to industry – which many did.
    Instead, over the last 15 years we introduced ‘stupid’ courses because people had money, not enough points for a ‘proper’ course but we didn’t want to tell them that, and the colleges needed more students. So rather than telling people now that their degree is pointless, we’re going to say you can taste it for a year before doing something decent – if you pass your exams – and that way, gradually weed out the less popular courses.It’s nuts.

    Happy New Year Ferdinand.

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    ‘ I won’t name it, this isn’t about that university’
    Still, it was not too difficult to identify my Alma Mater in your description! :-)

  6. iainmacl Says:

    It’s of course a symptom of competition between universities; each trying to outdo the others by the apparently rich portfolio of options. Of course, having some choice over specialist courses and modules is perfectly fine but whether the actual degree titles need to reflect this is another question.

    The question of what an undergraduate degree might be ‘for’ in this age of mass/universal higher education is a really valid one and has received some considerable attention internationally, with a number of institutions undergoing ‘curricular reform’. In some cases this has included rediscovering ‘liberal arts’ or to be more careful about what this means ‘liberal arts and sciences’.

    All of which, to some extent, also echoes the Scottish notion of the ‘democratic intellect’ and perhaps raises the question as to what a 21st century democratic intellect might be.

    Our 2013 Annual Symposium on Higher Education, here in Galway, is going to be on this theme and related topics, so thanks for setting the scene!


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