David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

So there’s a simple standard model of learning based around the idea of a scaffold.

In essence, the student gains an appreciation of the overarching structure of an area of knowledge, and then hangs detail onto that structure as it is mastered. It stems broadly from cognitive theories – which makes me think I’ve probably borrowed it from Graham Gibbs at some point.

It’s a reason why we have course descriptions, and why we refer back to end goals and broader ideas when we introduce new tools and concepts. It’s a reason why we have threshold concepts – elements that need to be mastered before further learning can be attached. And it’s a reason why the courses we design and deliver tend to be comprehensible in overall structure and content.


What if we took that structure away? What if we just presented students with short, discrete, blobs of learning without an explicit attempt to tie it to anything larger. What if the short, discrete, blobs of learning didn’t add up to anything?

If you buy the idea that learners – especially inexperienced young learners – like to have that structure to hang things off, you wouldn’t imagine such an offer being hugely popular.

But according to HESA just over 34,270 UK domiciled undergraduate students were on a “combined and general studies” course (group 23 at CAH level 1 in 2021/22). This combined studies bucket also includes – for some reason – personal development courses – ditch these and drill down to CAH3 (combined, liberal arts, non-specific humanities), and you’re left with some 32,190.

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The makeup of this group is interesting – 28,105 of them were part time, and of these 13,980 were not studying a course leading to a first (bachelor’s) degree. You’re probably thinking that the Open University is playing a part here – and you’ll be right: just under 8,000 of this subgroup were distance learning. HESA itself notes “ The majority of students in the combined and general studies subject area study at the Open University.” But keep an eye on Oxford (nearly 3,000) and Cardiff (about 1,330).

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In contrast, full time first degrees in combined studies had just 5,560 students enrolled that year – the big institutional names involved are mostly in or around the Russell Group (Exeter, Newcastle, UCL, Birmingham are the four biggest).

What the data means

For data collection purpopses HESA defines combined studies in HECOS as:

For use with combined studies subjects, when the particular subjects are not known at the point of classification. May involve subjects from across diverse areas of the curriculum.

Further noting that:

Where an integrated, rather than combined studies, approach is taken, consider using ‘general studies unspecified’.

Of course, I had to look that one up too:

For use with broad general studies, when the particular subjects are not known at the point of classification.”

This is all perhaps less than helpful – in that both terms flag not a subject or discipline but a learning intention. As we’ll see in a bit the design of many “combined studies” courses is made on the anticipation an intention or intentions will arise, semi-spontaneously, within the learner. These flags just mean that this hasn’t happened yet, rather than that it will never happen.

But if we recall that HECOS is actually designed to be used at module rather than course level it is very much an outlier in the grand sweep of classifications. I could just about imagine a general studies module (along the lines of a general studies A level), but other than specialist learner support for students on combined studies courses the other one is something of a mystery. So let’s have a look.

Combined studies in real life

My mental model of higher education has always suggested that most places with a modular model of provision would knock up a combined studies offer for students with more unusual interests that would not fit in the joint honours or major/minor constellations. These have been the visible, unistats-friendly, version of interdisciplinarity for ever since the nineties, when universities twigged they could attract more students that way.

The low number of full-time enrolments suggests it has always been a rather specialised endeavour – and these days such courses are rare and constrained. I found 33 courses for 2023-24 matching “combined studies” on UCAS at 11 providers. Eight of them are at Exeter.

The Exeter flexible combined honours pathway is a good example of the current state of the art. It claims to be:

A unique and appealing degree structure. You can study a range of two or three subjects, related or diverse, allowing you to develop a blend of knowledge and skills to suit your own subject interests and career objectives.

(Honestly, “unique” is a stretch – the Newcastle one looks pretty similar. Others have an initial subject constraint, for instance the social sciences one at Durham or the Arts and Sciences BASc at UCL

The general expectation appears to be that you settle on two (or sometimes three) subjects during your studies, and these are the ones that are named on your degree certificate (though there are numerous rules about this). If you don’t fancy that there are a few “thematic pathways” – the example given is “sustainability”, which can span disciplines including but not limited to geography, politics, english, biosciences, and management. There’s also some scaffolding: a compulsory year 1 module – “success in interdisciplinary study” – that covers stuff like “the idea of a university”, and “making FCH work for you”. FCH students also get a “special event” with a guest speaker covering interdisciplinary collaboration in the real world.

It does feel like it would be an interesting course – especially for people with a wider range of interests, or a reluctance to narrow their field of study at age 18.

Liberal arts

Of course, to millions of undergraduates around the world, the idea of going to university at age 18 with a specific subject in mind is ludicrous. In the US and similar systems students declare a major (and often a minor) subject some time during their first or second year (gaining an academic advisor specialising in this subject), but this can be changed at any point during study as long as you have all the required prerequisite courses completed.

There are some liberal arts courses in the UK – and there’s even a HECOS code (10065) defining it as “The interdisciplinary study of topics within the humanities, as well as social, natural and formal sciences.”. It’s a small but growing discipline with 2,070 full time UK undergraduates in 2021-22, up from 1,625 in 2019-20. There are 135 courses (at 28 providers) on UCAS for 2023-24 entry.

As an example the Birmingham iteration looks to bring in as much as is possible of the US model: the declaration of a major part way through the course, the ability to study a full range of arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences subjects on a module by module basis – plus a some course specific scaffolding (“from research to policy” as a means of exploring social problems on an interdisciplinary basis, and “interdisciplinarity” that focuses on methodologies – both of these make me think of the old and much-missed Lindsay experiment at Keele). And there’s a year you can spend either studying abroad, on placement with a community project, or focusing on computer science. Some subject options do have A level requirements that kick in at the point you declare a major, though you can avoid this if you perform well at the subject in year one.

Again, as a course this to me looks fantastic. It certainly prompts the question as to why there are not more courses like this, and why we don’t spend more time telling applicants about them.

Why aren’t there more students?

Sadly, we have a system of compulsory and tertiary education that generally demands early specialism (often as early as aged 16) that gradually narrows over time. We’ve become pretty good, as a collection of nations, at getting people into increasingly specialised niches – to the extent that we are once again looking to address the issue of missing data skills from our humanities graduates and missing humanities skills from our data science graduates.

Elsewhere on Wonkhe you’ll see coverage of some of the emerging approaches to addressing this – problem based learning, and stand-alone modules both link directly to the outputs of disciplinary learning: supporting the real world application of cross disciplinary study without sacrificing the traditional (and popular) single subject specialism.

But the system is stacked against more innovative input-side interventions like liberal arts and combined studies. Applicants are encouraged to look for courses that link directly to high quality employment, and providers are regulatorily incentivised to run high-quality vocationally driven courses that yield good output metrics. The numbers are small, but from what we have the OfS dashboard figures are encouraging for completion and progression from full time courses – though I can understand that this could be a gamble with uncertain student and employer demand.

And yet. The Lifelong Loan Entitlement could support modular multi-disciplinary study like this well – it also adds another US style twist in giving nuanced control over intensity to the student. What is missing is the idea of a foundational course – that would offer the kind of scaffolding (and frankly, careers support) that combined studies really needs. It’s not enough to assume wrap-around student support services at a provider will cover this – if a student is studying at multiple providers which one does the support? And is there a more consistent way to credit previous study and experience?

There’s not much political finessing needed to make this system really work for a new generation of multi-disciplinary graduates. We need a little bit of courage and a little bit of planning. And perhaps, in time, a return to the ancient idea of a liberal arts degree and a broad rather than deep student experience.

4 responses to “Studying whatever you’d like

  1. Am still persuaded by David Willets’ argument (I’m sure he’s not the first to make it) that our highly autonomous and research intensive institutions are largely the reasons for our over-specialised curriculum in compulsory education. Universities historically demanded that students enter with sufficient subject specialism to follow a single subject ‘research led’ curriculum organised by segregated academic departments, hence A-Levels in single subjects, hence O-Levels and then GCSEs. Maths is terrible and unapplicable to most learners at GCSE because it’s what you need to do to be ready to do a maths A-Level, which is what you need to be a maths or science undergraduate. Now the system is set in its ways. If we can transform the 14-19 curriculum (sadly an attempt abandoned in the New Labour years), maybe we’d see combined honours explode in popularity. This may now be in HE institutions’ interest as I’d suspect a long-run effect of this would be an increased demand for PGT courses when students feel ready to really specialise.

  2. As a combined honours graduate of Egyptology, Popular Music and German (Liverpool University, 2005) this post has piqued an old interest which I often draw on: the drive to not specialise. As an academic working in education, the interdisciplinary nature and reality of education and teaching means that my choice is 2002 to select random subjects of interest serves me well. Over the years I’ve justified my choices in varying ways, but mostly citing a desire for breadth and spontaneity. But what if I hadn’t then fallen into working in education? Are there other fields that benefit from diverse disciplinary study? And what of my peers in combined honours from 2005? Those I’m in touch with also work in education. What about other courses such as Politics, Philosophy and Economics? Do these fall under combine honours or some other coding? What are the reasons for the prestige surrounding these courses? And what does studying combined honours in general afford students compared to specialising? I see the ability to choose combined honours as a privilege, as well as a brave move to work without or outside of course structures. To feel able to do so, a prospective student may feel confident in their ability to do this, based on pre-existing knowledge of educational structures, or potentially a lack of fear of the unknown. Or is that what all students face today when entering university, particularly with reference to employability and transferability of learning from their [costly] undergraduate studies, regardless of discipline or mode of study?

  3. Having started my career teaching within a combined studies framework I have to reflect that the theory is often better than the practice. The notion that combined studies present interdisciplinarity only works if, in some way, the subjects studied “talk” to each other. However, top often the case is made that the interdisciplinary relationship exists “within the student” which is fine for some but more often means someone studies two separate subjects and very seldom benefits from that relationship.

    I would much rather design degrees that brought two subject together in an environment where the students (and teaching staff) understood and developed that relationship. There are still plenty of those kinds of courses around.

  4. “… that HECOS is actually designed to be used at module rather than course level …”
    We stopped collecting subject data for modules when HECOS replaced JACS, when it was no longer compulsory for providers in England. If it is really designed to be used at module rather than course level then perhaps it could do with a radical revision to make it more suitable for courses. There was a little trimming of JACS3 when HECOS was introduced – abandoning hundreds of codes that by all accounts *had never been used*.
    But there were new introductions of doubtful value. Can someone point to any decisions of national strategic importance that have flowed from, or even might flow from counting the number of people engaged in Bob Dylan Studies, or DH Lawrence studies? Or any ofher decisions whose importance would justify the cost of elaborating the coding system. (This is hard, obviously, as it is difficult to ascribe a cost to adding a single code to a list. However there is clearly an excess cost in managing and using a list of 1100 terms compared with, say 150, or even 50.)
    We need to know what people are learning when they undergo HE, but it is a mistake to confuse asking for more detail with understanding better. And, actually, we find out little about what students are learning, only recording what institutions think they are teaching. We would do better to return to efforts to discover something about learning gain.

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