New University Options With UK Liberal Arts Degrees

An important aspect of the work of the Bedales Professional Guidance Department, which I lead, is to be alert to changes and trends within higher education. For example, there has been a trend in recent years for university applicants to be admitted on lower grades than those expressed in offers which, in turn, has seen us advise students on their applications and make them aware of incentives from some universities to those applicants making them their first choice. This is part of our extensive engagement with students over the choices they make concerning their working lives beyond the school, wherever their preferences may lie.

An interesting new development has been the rising enthusiasm in UK universities for more American-style liberal arts degrees which, initially at least, see students pursue a wider range of studies than tends to be the case here.

This comes against a backdrop of increasing interest amongst Bedales students in studying in the US and Canada. They appear to value the additional flexibility that this offers them, and the fees, whilst typically expensive, have not appeared quite so steep subsequent to the increases to those in the UK. European universities are also opening up to English students, who can expect liberal arts programmes to be taught in English, and are extremely well supported by their institutions.

However, over the past few years a number of UK universities have launched modular liberal arts degrees, all of which offer students the opportunity to study a combination of major and minor subjects rather than straight single honours programmes. The most recent of these, offering extensive subject choices and significant flexibility, is from Leicester University. After the first year students can upgrade their minor interest to joint honours, or can even change to single honours should they so wish. It is the most flexible of the liberal arts degrees I’ve seen here, and I think many Bedales students – although not all – will find it attractive.

When I interview Bedales students during the 6:I year as they begin to consider their UCAS applications, some are very sure about what they want to do. Many don’t know, however, and so find it very hard to choose – a significant factor in some electing to study abroad.

Now, it seems, they may be able to find such a programme without leaving these shores. As with everything, there are potential drawbacks as well as advantages to this route. They are not for everybody, and those who are clear about their direction are likely to be better served by the single honours route. We are mindful that some of our students have not enjoyed the American model but, instead, have been frustrated to find themselves unable to study some subjects in as much detail as they would like.

For such courses to work well they require sound planning and management – some Bedales students who have gone on to pursue joint honours programmes have found the workload onerous, exacerbated by poor sequencing of requirements for written work. I suspect that students’ perception of such programmes as manageable will be the making or breaking of them in the long run.

Certainly, I will be alerting many of our students to what Leicester and others offering liberal arts degrees have to offer, and I’d like to see more universities follow this trend and make the programmes work. Industry has been vocal in its requirement for entrants with a rounded education, and there is an increasing numbers of students seeking an education hitherto available only overseas – such programmes can serve both parties well.  Of course, this does not undermine the importance of the more traditional degree programme, which remains the better bet for those wanting to specialise, or to pursue higher academic study, and we will encourage our students to think very carefully about what is right for them.

By Vikki Alderson-Smart, Higher Education Advisor