Posted tagged ‘degree programmes’

The early morning specialist

January 1, 2013

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.

What’s another year?

September 29, 2011

How long should a degree programme fit for the modern world be? Two years? Three? Four? More? This is an issue that is certain to be increasingly hotly debated, as both universities and governments search for ways in which public money can be saved.

Right now there are European processes that are moving towards some standardisation regarding programme length, but in the meantime the pressure on institutions is to make them shorter. This is a matter of special interest in Scotland, where most degree programmes run for four years (as against the English standard of three years). But now Dundee University has decided to give a lead, and so it has announced that in future some (but not all) of its courses will be shorter. This has created some negative reactions amongst educationalists, but has also brought out some supporters of the change.

In what way does this matter? It does so primarily because the duration of a degree programme should not be seen to be just an organisational matter. It should be part of a significant pedagogical debate in the academy. It may well be that, at the end of this process and Bologna notwithstanding, there will be a greater variety of undergraduate programmes, with an array of teaching methods and pedagogical perspectives. The length of a programme may come to be determined by such perspectives.

Does size matter – how long should degree programmes be?

April 6, 2011

Every so often when someone raises the question of whether two, three or four-year degree programmes are most appropriate I am reminded of an old friend of mine in Germany who, when I last had contact with him, had been a student in one undergraduate course for 12 years and counting, and with few signs that he might want to bring this pleasant episode in his life to an early end. I’ve lost track of him, so some 35 years on he may, for all I know, still be there. Bologna and related  reforms may put an end to this sort of lifestyle, but have we really worked out how long a degree programme should take in order for it to strike the right balance between pedagogy and scholarship on the one hand, and funding and career planning on the other?

There is no standard answer to this. English undergraduate degrees take three years mostly, as do degrees in most Irish universities (the exceptions being Trinity College Dublin and Dublin City University, whose programmes take four years). Scotland has four year honours programmes, as do many American universities.

In Scotland one university is about to experiment a little without formally changing its existing practice. The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) is working on a plan to bring forward the first year of undergraduate study to the final year at secondary school, during which the initial studies would be carried out online, presumably alongside the normal school studies. In a report in the Herald newspaper, the university’s Principal explains the plan as follows:

‘Our aim is to shorten the period between the final year of school and the four-year university course by a year,” said Mr Fraser. “One way of doing this is to persuade schools to give a full first year of university education to appropriate sixth year students as an alternative to coming to university. That would enable them to go straight into the second year of the course when they come to university.’

Has a four-year degree become unsustainable, or are there ways of making it more flexible so that it is manageable for today’s student body? Indeed, to what extent is it still reasonable to expect students to undertake their courses on a full-time basis? Is there scope for the two-year degrees that former British Business Secretary Peter Mandelson called for? Do we really have a sense of what it is, in terms of depth of study and the time it takes to achieve this, university degrees should represent? Is there indeed a common currency in this at all, Bologna notwithstanding?

It is time to have a much better, pedagogy-inspired debate on undergraduate education.

Keeping universities traditional

September 7, 2010

The reform and modernisation of higher education has been one of the themes of the past decade. This has not always been greeted enthusiastically within universities, but nevertheless recent years have seen restructuring, modularisation and commercialisation, and while some aspects of higher education have remained largely unchanged, the sector as a whole has gone through significant renewal.

The reform drive has often been prompted and pushed by government, the media and industry. Nevertheless, it appears that not all modernisation is seen as good. To illustrate this point, let me quote from an article in the Sunday Telegraph of this past weekend. The article, on what are described as ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’, contains the following passages:

‘An analysis of courses available through the university clearing system has disclosed that while most traditional courses are now full up, there are empty places in scores of “eccentric” degree courses. Education experts said it was unfortunate that such courses appeared to be proliferating at a time when school-leavers with good grades could not get places in core academic subjects….

Yet despite record demand for places at top universities, hundreds of places are still available in less well known higher education institutions, many of them offering unconventional courses. Northampton University initially had 250 places available through the clearing system, including such courses as Third World Development with Pop Music, Dance with Equine Studies and joint honours in Waste Management and Dance…

Mr Willetts  [Universities Minister] said: “In tough times I suspect some of these more eccentric courses, which date from the excesses of the dying days of the Labour government, will disappear because students see they are not a route into a well-paid career. Some of them sound like very odd courses indeed.”‘

It is not my intention to assess or defend particular programmes of studies in any university, but rather to point out that the whole intention behind modularisation (which has been backed strongly by governments and funding agencies) is to allow much greater flexibility so that students can assemble degree courses to suit their interests and/or career intentions, while maintaining appropriate academic grounding. Whether that has been achieved in programmes mentioned above is not necessarily the point, because the comments quoted there make assumptions about the dubious merit of unconventional subject combinations – comments which on the face of it fly in the face of the whole point of modularisation. The pedagogical idea, and indeed the perception of what society needs, is that making links between different subject areas opens up the possibility of interdisciplinary analysis and the acquisition of significant skills on the part of students. Universities should be the home of ‘eccentric’ initiatives, whereas here the assumption appears to be that traditional prudence is better than innovation.

Of course we should not defend programmes of study that have been assembled without proper pedagogical planning or which have inadequate intellectual foundations. But the people to make this judgement should appropriately sit on peer review panels; they are probably not going to include journalists from the Telegraph, or even the English Universities Minister if he makes such casual judgements.

University: quiet reflection or sharp, focused study?

February 12, 2010

The British Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, is not perhaps the most popular man right now in academic circles. He is presiding over substantial funding cuts, and in addition seems intent on redefining what a university education is and how universities might best deliver it. He has come in for a fair amount of criticism, some of it no doubt understandable. But what he says in not necessarily out of step with the views now held in industry, politics and maybe even society at large. And because his remit covers the English higher education system (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are separate), it is worth looking at his views more closely.

Perhaps one of the most detailed statements of his approach to date was delivered yesterday in his speech at the Lord Dearing Memorial Conference at the University of Nottingham. At the heart of it was a suggestion that a time of fiscal retrenchment and budget cuts could and should be used to reconsider what society’s expectations are of higher education and what universities should do to meet them. One part of that message was around funding and income, with the suggestion (that I would agree with) that public funding is unlikely to satisfy higher education needs fully and that institutions must actively develop strategies for attracting other income; and that in doing so they must increasingly identify and prioritise their special strengths and differentiated missions.

But it is his other suggestion that I want to refer to here: that there needs to be ‘a greater focus on alternative modes of study’. He went on to explain this in more detail, arguing that ‘part time degrees, shorter and  more intensive courses all offer the potential to lower student support costs, use resources more intensively and improve productivity.’ And here is how he explained why this is needed:

‘That is why, along side traditional three year full time degrees, I want to see part time study, two year Foundation Degrees and three years Honours courses delivered intensively over two years expand as part of the mix.  When their objectives and outcomes are clearly defined, and when they are taught well and properly resourced, there is no sense at all in which these alternatives should be seen as inferior to three year equivalents. And they can be, in many respects, better for students, especially for students without financial resources behind them. Because they enable them to earn and learn. They reduces the amount they have to borrow to get a qualification. And because these flexible kinds of education and training are vital for those who miss out on higher education straight after school the push for two year degrees and wider part time or work-based study should be at the core of the wider participation agenda. Those who argue against it risk painting themselves as defending an institutional inflexibility that doesn’t serve students, and doesn’t get the most out of public investment.’

There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the traditional university programme, delivered over an extended period of time, within an enclosed campus environment and requiring the student’s full-time attention (at least in theory) discourages or even excludes those from disadvantaged backgrounds or those who look for a second chance, later in life, to pursue a degree. Equally there are arguments to suggest that short degree programmes, or programmes focused deliberately on vocational links and outcomes will not adequately open the student’s mind to the intellectual underpinnings of higher education or give them the necessary time and motivation to reflect and adopt a critical perspective.

But then again, an intellectually driven education that can only really attract and retain a social elite may be attractive to that elite, but will otherwise almost certainly consolidate inequities and unequal opportunities.

So it all brings us back again to the dilemma on which all debate should really now be fixed: that the higher education framework that existed from the middle ages until recently has become untenable because it could not reach out to a broader population; but that we still tend to believe that its pedagogical approach was the most effective. We cannot go back to where we were, because society has moved on. But in the era of mass higher education we need to know better than we seem to know now what we want this much larger segment of society to get from their studies and what we therefore want our universities to do. We need to connect pedagogy with social policy, and we need to do that urgently. And we need to do that before we spend more time endlessly obsessing about higher education structures.

Two year degrees?

December 28, 2009

In a recent post here I drew attention to the annual ‘grant letter’ which the UK’s Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Lord Mandelson, had sent to the English founding council. But apart from the issue of university funding that the letter addressed, there was also one other matter raised by Peter Mandelson in passing which has attracted a lot of attention. Here’s what he said:

‘We want to see more programmes that are taken flexibly and part-time and that a learner can access with ease alongside their other commitments. We also wish to see more programmes, such as foundation and fast-track degrees, that can be completed full-time in two years.’ (para. 4)

It would be fair to say that this didn’t go down very well, with almost any audience. Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU, the academics’ trade union), said:

‘Reading between the lines here it sounds like a two-tier university system where the privileged few have the pick of the university park and everyone else has to make do with what they can afford.’

Media comment was also almost universally hostile, as in this example.

In fairness to Peter Mandelson, I’m not wholly sure that he said what has been attributed to him by some of the critics. He did (as seen in the quote above) refer to two-year programmes, but I don’t see the immediate evidence that he was holding this up as the general model to be applied. Rather, he seems to have been concerned with the need to have structured programmes that are accessible to those who are not traditional university students. For all that, he said what he said, and he certainly does seem to be contemplating some two-year courses. And if that is so, it is indeed necessary to examine where such courses would fit into both the Bologna framework and, more generally, our understanding of the pedagogy underlying university degrees. The problem is that the rather high volume of the responses may make a dispassionately analytical discussion with the Secretary of State difficult.

This is also an important topic for us in Ireland, and one that should be addressed in the higher education strategic review now under way, and in the resulting discussion. Right now there are three-year and four-year undergraduate programmes in Ireland, and some niche ones that have other structures. It is time to reach an agreement on what educational aims we expect to see satisfied in degree programmes and how the total period of study affects that.

Not a real university programme?

September 14, 2009

In the late 1990s a number of commentators got all hot and bothered about the decision by Thames Valley University in England to introduce a degree course on ‘kite flying’. According to some, this proved that the former Polytechnic of West London should never have become a university; and there were even some who insinuated that a Vice-Chancellor with an earring and a ponytail (which is what Mike Fitzgerald, then the Head of the university, sported) could not lead a reputable institution. In fact, not very long afterwards, the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency produced a damning report on the university, as a result of which Mike Fitzgerald stepped down and a new emergency management team was brought in.

Now the Sunday Times newspaper has pointed out that a number of UK universities run programmes that might, depending on who is making the comments, not be seen as serious university courses. The list includes a programme in Golf Management Studies offered by the University of Birmingham, Brewing and Distilling offered by Heriot-Watt University, and Surf Science and Technology offered by the University of Plymouth. Get ready, you might think, for the latest onslaught on university standards and cries of dumbing down. But actually, no. The article reports that the graduates of many of these programmes find employment more easily than those of, say, traditional humanities programmes in traditional universities. And there also are the UK Conservatives, arguing that such vocation-specific courses are what many punters now want and the state needs.

There are two issues here: the question of how vocational we should allow university programmes to be; and whether programmes that are as specific as these, and whose subject matter seems so trivial (as some may argue), are of any value. Or is there another, bigger question: whether the traditional university that teaches its programmes in the context of ‘disciplines’, set apart from the vocational world in which these might be translated into use, is now out of date?

It would seem to me that every university programme, however applied or abstract it might be, must pass a test of intellectual and academic rigour. The serious criticisms in the late 1990s of Thames Valley University had little to do with its programmes on kite flying, rock music and curry making (which all existed there), and were more about the chaotic management of the university’s ‘new learning environment’. Two of the more recent programmes mentioned above are offered by pre-1992 (‘old’) universities, so that an association between such offerings and ex-polytechnics is unjustified.

I don’t, to be honest, have the answers to these questions, but I suspect they raise for us an issue about how we identify universities and what activities in such institutions are appropriate. It seems to me to be right that there should be some diversity in the system, and that not all universities should aim for the same pattern of programmes. But that may not mean that there is no limit to the subject matter that constitutes appropriate material for university programmes. Or does it?


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