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Could we learn without specialisms?

James Hare asks why much of UK higher education is so obsessed with specialism in its teaching and learning.
This article is more than 1 year old

James Hare is the former Academic Officer at York Students' Union

At the end of a students’ union election debate night, my predecessor asked the candidates “what is university for?”

Put on the spot, I responded that university is for becoming the best possible version of yourself. That is something I stand by now – it is the experiences and friendships that I can draw on from my time as a student which put me where I am now. That includes the friends I made and the exposure to people I would never have otherwise met, the confidence and leadership skills that come from being the wise old man of your college’s hockey team, or the determination and time management skills that come from immersion in student journalism.

You’ll notice that none of that refers to my actual academic experience, which got me thinking…

The greatest feeling I had of academic enrichment came during my year abroad. Why was that? It certainly isn’t a critique of the outstanding teaching I experienced in York.

But I was studying politics and nothing more. The difference when I went to Warsaw was that I found myself studying more than just politics – being served up an eclectic mix of topics from across different subjects. A smorgasbord of history, economics, social policy, languages and much more – which wouldn’t have been the case had I not jetted off to Poland for a year.

The best possible version of myself

Without that experience, would I have become the best possible version of myself in an academic sense? Had I not studied abroad I could have taken a single module from a relatively narrow range of electives, or completed a language course as an add-on to my degree. But beyond that, I would have been limited in what I could study. In terms of specialism I would have (and indeed did) had a positive experience, but I would not have developed a broader academic perspective.

I question whether that is really the best outcome for a student who may enrol on a degree while still unsure where they desire to end up at the end of it.

Back at WonkFest18 I had the pleasure of hearing Glyn Davis speak. The Melbourne Model he developed – focusing on offering broad, relatively unspecialised undergraduate programs as standard before giving students the opportunity to hone in on a core topic at postgraduate level – addresses the same issue. Not only do students come out of single-subject degrees (and even some joint subject degrees) with a limited breadth of knowledge, often they also find themselves making subject choices at 18 that they then regret looking back three years later.

Improving the experience of a quarter of a million students or more

That is apparent in the data provided by the HEPI Student Experience Survey, which shows that fifteen per cent of students would have chosen another course when looking back on their degree choice now. That may not sound huge, but it amounts to 264,865 students. In any other situation, over 250,000 people saying they regretted a choice they committed three years or more of their life to would be a clear sign that a change is needed.

For the other 85% of students who are relatively happy with their choice to specialise, it is still the case that increased interdisciplinary provision would benefit their education. Gaining broader perspectives by wider study would not only provide for a better student experience, but could improve students prospects as they enter the workplace or further study.

Many employers carry less and less emphasis on graduate’s holding specific knowledge. They now tend to seek evidence of a wide array of skills, which are often hard to develop when taking a rigid and specialised program.

The changes I propose would not fit easily into existing structures such as the TEF, the NSS, and LEO data. The questions asked and the metrics recorded were not revealed to us from above, but instead are of artificial origin. This makes them potentially adaptable for a more diverse HE sector. And it is not as if these exercises are without their flaws – any opportunity to revisit and improve them should be welcomed.

Free modules for free thinking

It would be overly radical to suggest that institutions – particularly multi-faculty universities – should end specialism and purely focus on interdisciplinary provision. Many institutions offer high calibre specialised courses. However, in those cases there is still a middle ground. The virtues of offering a better spread of electives, or even a “free module” for students in other disciplines, are too often overlooked by the highest performing institutions – and changing that could hugely benefit their students.

But for those institutions looking for a unique selling point, perhaps languishing in the middle of league tables without a clear hook to prospective students, it’s not clear what there is to lose. Those that dare to be brave and carve out a niche as providers of high-quality interdisciplinary education could set themselves apart from their competitors, giving themselves a new lease of life in an increasingly crowded sector. There is a lot to gain for whomever dares to be different – and a great deal for students to celebrate once they do.

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