Widening the university curriculum

The University of Aberdeen, one of the oldest universities in the UK (it was founded in 1495), has just introduced a major reform to its undergraduate curriculum. According to a report in the Guardian newspaper, students will now need to include in their chosen programme of study one course each year that will cover topics not necessarily related to their main discipline. These include risk in society, science and the media, and sustainability. Aberdeen also includes optional work placements for students within the programme.

In this way what many may have regarded as a rather traditional university is reforming its curriculum and moving beyond the by now fairly common regulated modular structures of most institutions. It is also due to move to a semester framework for the academic year (though semesters will be called ‘half-sessions’).

What the Aberdeen reforms have in common with some of the more advanced modular systems is that they encourage students to consider issues and perspectives that are not part of any of the traditional disciplines, while not however compromising the disciplines which will continue to be taught. The pedagogical question in all this is whether knowledge can or should be studied in university degree programmes according to the perspectives of a discipline (assuming we can agree what a ‘discipline’ is), or whether it can be assessed according to the issues and questions that are relevant to modern society, such as questions about health, about energy, about social organisation, and so forth. Aberdeen is suggesting, if I understand it, that you do both: you maintain the discipline, but you also assess interdisciplinary issues in separate courses taught at the same time, but outside the disciplinary syllabus. It is an interesting contribution to the debate about higher education.

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7 Comments on “Widening the university curriculum”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    In UCD, students have to take two modules each year which are not part of their program, if memory serves me right. Of course one might choose modules which are very close, like a physics student taking an extra mathematics course.

  2. Wendymr Says:

    Keele University has done something similar to this for a very long time; first-year students must choose two subjects per semester which are not only not from their main discipline(s) – most students take dual honours – but some must even be from a different faculty. So, for example, humanities or social science students must take additional modules from natural science.

    • kevin denny Says:

      I think the intellectual benefit of these “off program” courses or modules is when they stretch the mind so it needs to be carefully managed. I have taught a mathematics course for intermediate level economics students but I always got some students (usually final year engineers) who took it for the easy credits and probably learned nothing. I have no incentive to exclude them: it makes the grades look good.

  3. Vincent Says:

    At NUI,Galway some subjects in Arts are of different weights, Classical Civ’ is a case in point.
    I took Linguistics one year and Holocaust studies the next and the only problem is that you can get caught up in the new and fascinating subject.
    But I think the reasoning has to do with relative weights and semesterisation.

  4. iainmacl Says:

    There’s also the other possibility that being immersed in a specific discipline and developing expertise can of course also be of great benefit (not least of which for the continuation of the discipline itself) to the individual, developing their learning skills at a high level, and being able to appreciate conceptual challenge, overcoming the intellectual frustrations and feeling a real sense of achievement of ‘ threshold concepts’ and ‘troublesome knowledge’ (as Land and others describe). And perhaps its the later stages after one has become a self-reflective learner that there’s a better chance of real appreciation of a wider curriculum? How many young undergraduate students really appreciate the benefits of a broad curriculum as opposed to it being seen as a superficial scan of a range of topics?

    Perhaps we can bring proper meaning back to the term ‘lifelong learning’, by creating opportunities for graduates in one particular discipline to have the opportunity to take programmes or learning experiences in completely different subject areas. In a sense many people do this through the Open University, many of whose students are not new learners but actually graduates from other institutions.

    Speaking personally,as a young student I was interested in so many different subjects at school and university so rather than specialise I chose to study everything, the entire universe, all existence – the subject of which everything else is mere detail: cosmology! đŸ˜‰


    • Thanks, Iain. I think that’s what I thought might be interesting about the Aberdeen concept: combining a ‘traditional’ disciplinary focus with modules on something different, but also designed as courses in their own right with a self-contained integrity (so different from most modular designs).

      Mind you, I do wonder whether we really understand what constitutes a ‘discipline’ – but I’ve been down that road before.

  5. belfield Says:

    Seems to me we are increasingly seeing the arrival in these islands of ‘service education’ on the lines practiced by a number of US HEIs.
    And if the scale of funding applied to the Campus Engage event at Croke Park last summer is anything to go by, it’s not going to rest on the margins of what we do for too long.


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