Posted tagged ‘undergraduate degrees’

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 recherch√©, 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.

So what do we think a ‘degree’ is?

January 17, 2011

Here’s an interesting snippet of information: in England a growing number of people are entering universities and colleges to study for ‘foundation degrees’. These are two-year courses involving work placements, which the student can do on a full-timke or part-time basis. They can then either take the qualification, or use the credits earned as part of a route to an undergraduate honours degree award. Over 300 universities and colleges, including some older universities, offer these programmes, and according to the latest information they are growing fast in popularity. They also fit in with the views expressed by English Universities Minister David Willetts that students should seek out alternatives to the traditional university degree.

There is little doubt that more people need education and training to improve their career opportunities and maximise the skills available to society. There is little doubt also that universities should make contributions to meet this demand. But along the way, it may be necessary to look again at what constitutes a ‘degree’ (and of course there is a Bologna dimension to this). I am clear in my own mind that the traditional undergraduate degree is not the only workable or useful model; but equally I believe that not every training programme should be classified as a ‘degree’. As governments push higher education institutions to offer courses that are modelled on rather different considerations than just academic ones, it might be worthwhile looking again at the portfolio of higher education and asking how it can be made both academically valuable and socially productive. That debate needs to be held in more explicit terms than it has been to date.


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