Avoiding early specialisation at university

One of the key features of many of today’s universities is that often they admit students into a wide array of highly specialised subjects. Students are expected to leave secondary school with their career choices clearly mapped out, and this is then reflected in their higher education roadmaps. But is this a good idea?

One of the ideas mooted in the recent paperEntry to Higher Education in Ireland in the 21st Century, prepared by Professor Áine Hyland for Ireland’s National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, is that universities should consider ‘reform [of] the configuration of first year courses to eliminate denominated courses and adopt a policy of generic first year courses unless there are compelling reasons not to do so (e.g. General Arts; General Science; General Technology; General Health Sciences).’ This would overcome students’ lack of insight into specialised areas of study and allow them to make choices when they are more mature and have developed more sophisticated study skills.

Given the proliferation of university degree programmes, and the tendency to keep introducing new programmes on top of old ones, this is a proposal worthy of consideration, and not just in Ireland. It may be time to push back career decisions to a somewhat later stage, not least because at that later stage students are more capable of forming a judgement of their own, with less reliance on parents and counsellors. The idea is worthy of reflection.

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12 Comments on “Avoiding early specialisation at university”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Far far far more important is the ability to re-train without having to go back to square one.
    And when exactly are those dimwitted practices of requiring a 2:1 and above for EVERY-SINGLE-POST-GRAD-COURSE going to be revised. Be that for entry to PhD tracked research only or bog standard HDip. Who the hell from twenty years ago will have a 2:1+. This is another idiotic doing much like the points drawn from teh Leaving Cert.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      We don’t require a 2:1 and will accept 2:2s if the overall dossier is otherwise compelling. So the answer to your question is: “yesterday.”

      • Vincent Says:

        That quite simply isn’t true. You should try it some day. Pick NUI.M for instance and see what the ‘actual’ requirement is for entry to one of the HDip’s. Nor does it matter which of them, the uni’s, you choose. The reality is something very different from the posted requirement.

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    This is a great idea but requires a move to 4-year degrees. That will never happen in Ireland.

    • Wendymr Says:

      Trinity degrees are four-year.

    • ObsessiveMathsFreak Says:

      All Irish degrees are 4-year degrees.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        Most undergraduate degrees at UCD are 3-year degrees. This will never move to 4 years. They’d move it to 2 years if they thought they could, since it doesn’t matter to anyone what students learn. All that matters is that they be credentialed and that they come out with a parchment that implies virtually nothing in the way of accomplishment but signals to prospective employers that they might just barely be acceptable employees.

  3. cormac Says:

    Ahem. Amost all honours science degrees are 4 year degrees. Prof Hyland’s suggestion makes excellent sense, at least in the sciences, not least because a great deal scientific research is interdisciplinary by nature. For 10 years, I have been trying to persuade my own college that physics should be offered as part of science, not as a stand-alone degree..

    • ObsessiveMathsFreak Says:

      Speaking as a mathematician, I have deep reservations about this “general” 1st year idea. It’s hard enough already to build up physics and engineering students up a level where they can do things like Laplace transforms and partial differential equations by their third year, and the new leaving certificate maths curriculum made that job a lot harder by gutting much of the existing material.

      If we in addition have to wait a year for new student to “find themselves”, then engineering degrees will have to be extended to 5 years, or else we’ll have to run a third semester over the summer.

  4. Regina Says:

    This may be an aside, but there may be an assumption that parents and counsellors have too great a say, and that the current generation of school leavers have been ‘molly-coddled’ for too long, as Celtic tiger cubs etc. While there may be a grain of truth in such talk, exhorting youngsters with stories of how their parents worked their way through impoverishment in youth to attain great academic or financial heights neither inspires nor assists school leavers with their current dilemmas. Largely as a result of higher completion rates, parents have become resigned to having to mentor their teenage offspring through the next level, and to a much greater extent compared to previous generations. This is probably a good thing, and while Irish caregivers may not foster as much independence in preparation for third level as we hear from other countries, they contribute as best they can to a broader cultural and social ethic of care and well-being.

    Along with this has come some demystification of the university process and courses among the general population, together with a heightened awareness of what’s needed for the future e.g., diversity/changing careers/innovation (…including immigration). But, coupled with a dearth of part-time jobs and an absence of student loan systems, parents have become much bigger stakeholders in their offsprings’ university choices – whether they like it or not! It seems a pity that universities assume that parents are somehow irrelevant and mostly a nuisance in the third level process. If this were reversed, even a little, it might actually make for more meaningful engagement of students in those courses where attrition or failure rates run high.

    Alternatively, of course students could take a few gap years, draw some dole, sit around, or do a kind of work placement, and begin university when they’re all grown up and ‘ready to make a decision’.

    The solution proposed by Professor Hyland re general courses would certainly lead to a collective sigh of relief in many households, while the prospect of a 4 year degree would be a small price to pay for a constructive learning pathway.


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