The importance of flexibility in higher education
As the university recovers from its collective hangover and lectures begin in session, I confess that I still don’t know which degree I’ll end up taking: officially an English student, I am lured by the promise of Psychology to explain the human mind, potentially scrutinising the imagination behind literature itself.
Accordingly, these two disciplines are fundamentally split by their conversely humanistic and scientific methodologies, and so choosing between them ultimately involves choosing a single academic lens through which to examine the world – and so it must be asked, why can you not look through both?
This is not a problem unique to Sussex (whose elective system, in all fairness, is a mild alleviator): the entire English system rigidly prevents genuine interdisciplinary study. Students are made to specialise from the age of 16, when they usually choose just four subjects to study for A-level. This works well for those who have plotted their career path but seemingly ignores the significant remainder.
Meanwhile, the homogenous International Baccalaureate requires students to take roughly six subjects and is generally a much broader programme; but despite being offered in England, it is not widely available and taken by a only minority of students. But its same attitude of flexibility should be adopted at our universities by allowing undecided students to explore multiple subject areas and perhaps to discover new ones, which would eventually enable them to make a truly informed decision about their degree.
Indeed, the experience of undergraduate study differs markedly to that of A-level, meaning that no new students have a complete idea of what a degree-level approach to their chosen subject entails; while research into a degree programme can form a reasonable impression of its reality, direct experience can dramatically change our perceptions. Without wanting to target specific disciplines, many Philosophy students as an example are surprised by the degree of pure logic to the course, perhaps falsely expecting a more ‘airy’ approach. Most universities of course will permit some degree of course-swapping under the current system, but the problem can be tackled earlier simply by allowing students to experiment with different subject areas before they settle on one degree.
You don’t have to look far to find a superior system of university education: in Scotland, students are able to study various subjects for their first two years, refining their choices as they progress. They are therefore supposedly more confident when the time finally comes to specialise and commit to a degree programme. In America, liberal arts colleges teach their students an all-encompassing humanities course to provide a foundation to whatever major they decide to pursue. While these US institutions are privately funded and therefore more free to offer such expansive tuition, those in Scotland and England are identically subsidised, and it is therefore more than viable to have this more flexible system implemented.
The benefits of such a varied education in terms of academic development are self-evident, allowing students to draw from a number of disciplines to make more informed judgements. They can make connections across schools of research, which in reality cross over a great deal, and develop a well-balanced intellect that doesn’t rely too heavily on a single field of work. The knowledge of a Politics student, for example, could be greatly advanced by lateral study in fields such as Sociology, whose academic research can be used to inform political decision. Again, we are fortunate that Sussex has interdisciplinary interests at its core, but it remains unique for it and the system remains more limited than that elsewhere.
A more balanced education will also eventually translate into a more varied set of skills, which enable increased flexibility in the ever more intense competition of the jobs market. This has been recognised by University College London, who are looking to introduce a combined honours programme that would bridge the arts and sciences. It’s true of course that not every job requires such diversity, but this performative range would enable more fluid career changes, which reportedly occur three to seven times in the average adult life. From a purely economic perspective then, the alternative system again seems the natural choice.
Ultimately, by forcing students to choose a degree programme at the age of 18, the current system is forcing premature stratification: most of us are choosing a path when there should still be several, improperly informed and merely caught in the tide of UCAS applications. The gulf between Sixth Form and university has to be bridged by a chance to experiment with different subject areas, so that irresolute students can make a choice of degree that acutely matches their interests. The advantages to such flexibility are numerous, which we can see in superior models all around us – and it should only be a matter of time before the Ministry of Education take heed.