Magazine article Times Higher Education

Liberal Arts: How Are Students Finding Pick 'N' Mix Model?

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Liberal Arts: How Are Students Finding Pick 'N' Mix Model?

Article excerpt

More UK institutions are adopting the US degree. Natasha Turner examines graduates' prospects

Regent's University London has become the latest UK institution to introduce its own US-style liberal arts degrees to its body of courses, welcoming its second intake of students just last month.

According to Lawrence Phillips, head of Regent's American College London, the school within the university that runs the courses, the programme is the first in the UK to fully adopt a US-type model. This is due, the university says, to the modules having been designed for the liberal arts degrees, rather than being a compilation of modules from different departments.

But how have other UK universities been adapting the US liberal arts model so far and is it an increasingly popular course choice for students? And what prospects do the first cohort of students - who are just beginning to graduate - have for the future?

Although the existing liberal arts-type courses on offer do incorporate existing modules from across the university, some also provide the core modules aimed at developing skills to integrate disciplines and solve problems using multiple approaches - a key tenet of the liberal arts approach.

Major and minor requirements

For instance, University College London's art and sciences programme - its liberal arts-type degree - insists students take core modules including one on interdisciplinary methods, a course in quantitative methods, and a foreign language.

Carl Gombrich, programme director, arts and sciences, at UCL, said that he was also not really in favour of complete flexibility for students when it came to such degrees. "If you're going to set yourself up as an educator, there's a responsibility to not just turn it completely over to the students. I think that when you're 18, you don't really know how these things hang together," he said.

The existing UK courses also take the US approach of encouraging students to specialise in one area - their "major" subject.

At King's College London, liberal arts students spend half their time in their second and third years on their major. Meanwhile, at the University of Birmingham, requirements for a major are set by the heads of each department participating in the liberal arts degree.

Diana Spencer, dean of liberal arts and sciences at Birmingham, said: "The heads of education and programme leaders define for us what they think core and suitable options would be for students who want to progress on a major track through that subject."

Rachel O'Brien is part of the first cohort of liberal arts and sciences students at Birmingham. She is majoring in gender studies - the only undergraduate in her cohort to be doing so. "Even though I'm doing gender, which is quite wide-reaching, I am mostly in the politics, sociology and philosophy departments and I've progressed through them since the first year. I can't just take any old module," she explained.

'We were the guinea-pig year'

As with any flagship programme, however, the kinks have had to be ironed out and Ms O'Brien said that the course is more structured now.

She said: "We were the guinea-pig year and people were taking modules in six different departments. Now they're more prescriptive. Liberal arts is meant to give you a lot of freedom but there's also meant to be a coherency to it. …

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