When I was an undergraduate law student in Dublin in the 1970s, the content of my degree programme was largely fixed for me, but there were some choices. During my first two years studying law, all my subjects (there were no ‘modules’ then) were compulsory, in part of course reflecting the requirements and demands of the legal professions. During the third year, three subjects were compulsory, and students could choose a fourth from a menu of about seven options. In the fourth and final year one subject was compulsory, and the remaining three were chosen by the student from the same list of seven options. That was it.
In today’s higher education environment the basic structure of degree programmes has, in almost all universities, changed fundamentally with the arrival of modularisation. Students must still, in most institutions, opt for a degree programme in a menu made available to them, but within these programmes they can now expect to be able to make significant choices as to which specific elements (modules) they will take, and in a number of institutions these choices will include some ‘free electives’ that can be taken from outside the subject area they have chosen for their degree. So for example, University College Dublin (UCD) describes this part of the framework as follows:
‘In addition, you generally also have a choice of two ‘elective’ modules (subject to module entry requirements, timetable and availability of places), which can either be taken from within your main subject area to deepen your learning, or from outside it to broaden your learning. The choice is yours.’
Sometimes this level of discretion is not popular with academics, who fear that the selection of modules from outside the key discipline may create difficult complications. Modules made available in other programmes may not be easily understood outside of those programmes, and students taking them in this way may lack necessary background knowledge. There may also be budgetary difficulties as student numbers become hard to predict in individual modules.
Nevertheless, as we increasingly emphasise the significance of interdisciplinarity, modular flexibility may become more desirable. But how far should it be a free choice, and to what extent should it be constrained or at least guided? The traditional understanding of higher education was heavily focused on education within and for disciplines. Is such intellectual compartmentalisation still possible? Do we have a new pedagogical understanding of the coherent formation of students?