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.