Are our universities too specialised?

Writing as a guest blogger in the higher education pages of the Washington Post newspaper, Anne D. Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) complains that American students are not getting a sufficiently rounded education. In fact, she suggests that the US system of higher education has ‘a culture that is anti-intellectual and that often produces students who have neither the skills or knowledge they will need to succeed after graduation’. In particular, she feels that students graduate without having a sufficient knowledge of history, economics and literature.

It is probably worth saying that the ACTA is not without its critics in America, and indeed Anne Neal has been criticised as someone intervening in higher education without sufficient expert knowledge and with a political agenda. However, the points raised in her piece may merit some discussion. Students in our system of education are being pushed earlier and earlier into greater specialisation, often before they are mature enough to make such choices. Modularisation in universities has provided some opportunities to broaden knowledge, but its implementation in practice has often been difficult.

Is it time to look more closely at our education system and to ask whether a more rounded education, continued to a slightly later age, would benefit society? Later specialisation (which certainly cannot be avoided) may work better if it is grounded in a greater degree of general knowledge.

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8 Comments on “Are our universities too specialised?”

  1. jfryar Says:

    What does a 17 year old know about being a vet, physicist, or mechanical engineer? I’d imagine very little and yet we get them to list degrees on their CAO forms without, maybe, appreciating exactly what they’re getting into. My limited experience suggests that male students in particular seem to have less direction at Leaving Cert. level because, quite simply, they aren’t sure what it is they want to do. In my undergradute class, for example, about 20% of physics students swapped to do computing instead after just a few weeks of lectures.

    I’d propose we look at three strategies; introduce a prep year, where students can sample modules before finalising their ‘major’ subject; proper modularisation of courses so students can tailor their degrees (a ‘minor’ subject, if you will) as they, not academics, see fit; and greater university participation in outreach activities, particularly geared towards transition year students to help them assess their choices.

    I think the issues raised here of providing a broader, more general education is intrinsically linked with helping students assess their choices and removing the pressure our education system puts them under. With more courses going on-line, I think the possibilities are very exciting.

    • Perry Share Says:

      This is exactly the direction we are seeking to go in my department. It is a challenge, with a lot of practical, pedagogical and professional issues to be sorted, but reflects the type of educational experience that people – ‘teachers’ and ‘learners’ – want.

  2. Niall Says:

    I agree with jfryar’s comment. Many school leavers do not have a clear idea about what they want to do in life or what they would like to study. This is to be expected. Higher education helps them to find what they like and what they don’t. A very broad introductory year would be very helpful for these students. Perhaps transition year should be after the leaving certificate and should help students tranistion into higher education or employment.

  3. Emily Says:

    It doesn’t help that teenagers are pushed into specialising before uni. I ended up studying on the International Baccalaureate rather than A-levels as I had no idea what I wanted to with my life at the time.

  4. Vincent Says:

    If you get what you want with the Fees, then it will be a profound indulgence to play about with the length of time the student is required to study full time. As to the 17 year old. He has no business being in a University in the first place.

    • jfryar Says:

      Well, I agree but I think the issue you raise would vanish if you gave students sufficient choice. For example, offer a five year masters degree level course if students really know what they want to do, a four year degree with a six month work experience, a three year degree without the work experience, or a four year degree without work experience but a prep year. There’s no reason I see why, if modularisation does what it says on the tin, you couldn’t run multiple programmes to cater for multiple student choices or those who are unsure. This was the idea behind the now relatively popular Common Entry to Science programmes across the Irish third-level sector, for example.

      And as for the age – 17 when they were making decisions on courses; hopefully 18 when they hit the college bar!

  5. Al Says:

    It is a little fantastic to speculate on the perfect education while spending other peoples money to achieve it.

    Further as Vincent pointed out, we are throwing children into third level and expecting alot from them.

    Problem and solution lies in second level???

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