Posted tagged ‘university programmes’

Not enough choice?

February 28, 2012

I confess I find it difficult to make up my mind about the significance of the following. According to figures released last week by the academics’ trade union in the UK, the University and College Union (UCU), if you wanted to go to university in 2006 you would have had 70,052 university programmes from which you could have chosen. If you were beginning your studies in 2011, it was a mere 51,116. In other words, the national menu of university courses had declined over those four years by 27 per cent.

This is not a story about falling student numbers: over the same period more students entered higher education. Also, before any hasty conclusions are drawn, it is not about the student-staff ratio: there was not a corresponding decline in academic staff numbers. It is not even about the breadth of subject provision, at least to the extent that the information released is not about the number individual modules. Rather, it is about how these modules are grouped into programmes leading to the award of a degree. So what the UK had less of in 2011 than in 2006 was award titles.

So at one level it could be said that the headline information provided by the UCU is not as meaningful as might at first appear. Indeed it could be argued that the rationalization of course provision is not a bad thing, particularly in a system that has some reputation for stretching resources by adding new programmes without dropping existing ones. A look at the menu available to students making their choices each year could suggest the conclusion that there are far too many options, and that the differences between some of them are not always clear.

On the other hand, the UCU information does raise some more specific issues, particularly the apparent decline in offerings in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). The data also suggest that the changes in provision are not even across the UK, with the biggest decline in England (31 per cent) and the smallest in Scotland (3 per cent): it would be useful to find out why this is so.

Even if the UCU survey on closer analysis does not suggest that there is quite as much of a problem as might at first appear, it does raise important questions about what kind of breadth of subject provision is ideal, and what the impact on this has been of recent (and varying) policy changes across the UK. In other words, it merits further debate.

Similar questions could also be asked about provision elsewhere – for example, what the impact has been in Ireland of the fairly dramatic cuts in higher education funding and staffing. Overall, it is time to have some debate about the ideal shape of a modern system of higher education.

Looking for something to study? Try something more unusual

February 12, 2011

If you thought that learning about zombies at university was somewhat off-beat (see my last post), here are some other academic courses you might consider.

1. The Simpsons and Philosophy. This is taught in a special programme at the University of California, Berkeley. Here’s the course synopsis:

‘The purpose of The Simpsons and Philosophy DeCal is to provide students with a unique introductory look into a number of varied academic areas of interest using The Simpsons as a tool for further understanding.  From philosophy to religion, from science to politics, students will explore a number of different world views and how The Simpsons engages in such discourses.  By taking this class, students will come to appreciate how The Simpsons can lead to better understanding of, well, pretty much everything.’

2. The Science of Harry Potter.  This is offered at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and ‘examines the magical events in J.K. Rowling’s books and explains them through the basic principles of physics.’

3. Philosophy and Star Trek. You can take this at Georgetown University. This course is ‘an introduction to certain topics in metaphysics and epistemology philosophy, centered around major philosophical questions that come up again and again in Star Trek.’

So what should we say about these and other similar programmes? Are they just rubbish? Are they examples of popular culture undermining genuine scholarship? Or are these legitimate examples of academic analysis and critique? In fact, should we study popular culture to understand more about society?

The right graduates?

September 17, 2009

I was at a discussion forum today, and one of the topics was whether as a country we are producing ‘the right graduates’, by which was meant graduates with qualifications for which there is a national need. Of course this is a loaded question, because it starts with the assumption that it is possible to provide an answer, and that therefore there is such a thing as a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ graduate.

I would suggest that there are three possible perspectives on this. The first is that the ‘right’ graduates are those who have graduated from the programmes they wanted to study, regardless of whether these are priority areas in anyone else’s perspective, including that of the government. The second is the opposite, that there is a legitimate public interest in ensuring that we have a viable flow of skilled graduates who have taken programmes that meet a national priority need. The third might lie somewhere in between, with a mix of free choice qualified by availability, where the latter is driven by national priorities.

The problem right now is that, for the most part, we have none of these. It would be hard to say that there is free choice for students, because in exercising their choices they may often have been influenced or put under pressure by others (including parents). On the other hand we don’t have state control either. You might think that we actually have the third ‘middle way’ model, but we don’t. What restricts free choice is not national priorities, but rather the artificial distortions of the CAO points system, where students are pushed into subjects not because they want to study them, but because they have the necessary points. The inmpact of this system is assessed here.

It seems to me that there are some general things to be said about the ‘right’ graduates. Some might argue that those who have secured very good university examination results can become the ‘right’ graduate in almost any field. In addition, any graduate who has acquired transferable skills that will support Ireland’s efforts is a ‘right’ graduate, even if the programme they took is considered irrelevant to the business sector the graduate is now pursuing.

On the other hand, it could be argued that higher education has a crucial role in securing a better distribution of specific skills and qualifications in the interests of the country. This has been one of the key principles underpinning the establishment in Ireland of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, which over the past decade or so has monitored the labour marker and identified problems caused by skills shortages. In its most recent bulletin it has pointed out that, despite rising unemployment, we still have inadequate numbers of skilled people in key industries such as IT and medical devices; in these areas almost all demand for labour is for those with degree level qualifications, and our failure to attract enough people into relevant degree programmes has become a significant problem for the Irish economy and can delay or impede our economic recovery.

So ultimately the big question here is to what extent it is possible to persuade or convince students to consider programmes for which a national need has been identified, or whether we should just let them go for whatever they want to do. Or else, should we perhaps contemplate a model where undergraduate programmes and modules a follow liberal arts model, and that specialisation (whether at the discretion of the student or with some other guidance) is reserved for postgraduate programmes and research.

I fear that we are groping around in this territory because we do not at this point have a consensus view of the purpose of higher education. Do we want higher education programmes to satisfy national skills needs in a more directed way, or do we want them simply to offer whatever it is the students’ want? This lack of consensus is inhibiting the development of a viable higher education policy in Ireland. It’s time for a proper debate on the underlying philosophy of our education system.