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Finally - Flexible course choice at UK universities

By Danny Harrington


Universities in the US and the UK still dominate any list of the world’s top higher education institutions, often justifiably. What many people do not always understand is that as these lists are commonly a complete overview of a university’s evaluation they include both research and teaching. Now, there is a very good argument that if you have great research you can provide great undergraduate teaching but this does not always actually happen in the real world. When secondary/high school students and their parents are looking at university rankings they should try to find lists that focus on the undergraduate experience only – quality of teaching, class size and frequency, spend per head, student satisfaction, and employability [in relevant jobs not any old job to survive].

If you are comparing the UK and the US as possible destinations then one of the things that becomes obvious is that you need to compare systems before institutions. I have always been of the opinion that neither system is best per se. They are different and those differences may confer advantages or disadvantages to you as an individual learner. That said, I do believe that some systemic differences can be absolutely advantageous or disadvantageous and one of these is flexibility on course choice.

The US has for a long time been very flexible with the choices students have. Freshman often make some quite wide ranging class choices and specialisation happens much later if at all. Very specialist subjects in the US come afterwards in “grad” school. The UK on the other hand has always been very rigid. You choose a course which is fixed for three years and if you don’t like it the only “choice” is usually to like it or lump it. These are of course extreme ends of the spectrum. One can argue that many US students end up with a degree in not very much and have to spend way too much time and money qualifying for anything more specialised. Perhaps US universities need to be more flexible with their flexibility!

The good news for UK based students is that the government is currently looking at the possibility that students could not only be allowed to swap courses more easily but would be actively asked whether they wish to at the end of the first year, possibly by UCAS which co-ordinates UK university admissions. There are of course many objections. The two main ones are the administrative cost and the idea that universities will become more beholden to student opinion and have more uncertain finances.

To the latter I would say tough to the universities. There are probably a few too many of them and perhaps some market forces would be a good thing to get rid of those not delivering good value at undergraduate level. And I have a natural distaste for any institution which takes the patriarchal, patronising position that they know best. This is where UK universities fall down. They do not put undergraduate students first. Any educational institution that does not put its students at the forefront of its thoughts has already failed in my book.

The cost is a real and very large concern. One feels instinctively that in the current climate the only place the costs are going to fall ultimately is on the student. There is no taste in government for more spending and in fact higher education costs are already rising for students. If the new flexibility is only going to be available to the wealthy well then it is pointless. The wealthy already have all the flexibility they need. But if the system can embrace the idea, at no cost to students, that the average learner benefits from choice and breadth until quite late in their academic life, possibly for all of it, then we could be on to a good thing in the UK which will help redress the balance to the US. The modern world does not necessarily require 22-year-old subject specialists. It requires people with skills, including the skill of how to learn. Good degree courses can achieve that without being beholden to the intricate details of the Westphalian Peace, or the inner workings of graphene.


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