Keeping universities traditional

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.

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5 Comments on “Keeping universities traditional”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I don’t see what the big deal is here: it looks like Willets is saying something uncontroversial, even bland “These are odd looking courses and they may not survive in the present circumstances”. Apart from the barb at Labour, I would say much the same myself. So if he’s just expressing that opinion then fine, he is entitled to. Indeed as the government minister, he has a certain responsibility to ensure that tax-payers money is well spent. Of course if he was using the statement to justify some arbitrary diktat about what universities could do then it would be another matter.
    I do not disagree with what you said about the merits of modular systems. Universities experiment with different programs & its obviously a lot easier with a modular system. Students experiment by choosing them or not. So it all comes down to supply & demand and it sounds like there is no longer much demand for these courses.
    And finally, “Dance with Equine studies” should be an intrinsic part of every university. I mean, who would not want to dance with a horse? 🙂

    • Al Says:

      Only for the slow sets.
      Though without the shift please!
      Got to bring apples to that disco


    • Kevin, my point is that the Telegraph and/or the Minister seem to think there are two kind of courses only: ‘traditional’ ones and ‘eccentric’ ones. So while (rightly) there is a push for interdisciplinarity at one level, anything that goes that way in practice may be labelled ‘eccentric’.

      I am not defending programmes in ‘kite making’ or whatever it was TVU offered in the 1990s, but whether such programmes, or any programmes, are intellectually appropriate is not a judgement to be made on the basis of whether they look and feel ‘traditional’. I just feel a much more sophisticated judgement is required here.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    after all judging by the tradition of the Galway Races, Finance with Equine Studies has been popular here for many years..

  3. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    Dancing with a horse? sort of like Dressage – one of the most popular olympic equestrian sport.

    Let me get this straight: NU offers joint degrees in Dance and Equine studies. Presumably they also teach business studies and accounting.

    this might be a case that NU are full up with students enrolled in ‘sensible’ combinations like Equine/Business and Dance/Business. Full up due to the fact that the university has no more room in the Business classes. On the other hand, places are evidently available in the likes of Dance and Equine.

    In that case the journalist is just scrapping this story off the floor.


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