Modular Degrees

Some of my best thinking sessions come at the pub. Last night I was meeting my friend Seb for some good old-fasioned grousing about the university, and lo and behold a constructive idea came out of it. Seb commented that the whole idea of spending three or four years working on a degree in a single place was an anachronism. Why are students not able to move about and study where they please?

It occurred to me that Seb had hit on something profound. What if the entire approach to study abroad is backwards? Instead of viewing travel as an important, yet anomalous part of undergraduate education, why is it not an integrated part of it? What if the very concept of a home university no longer makes sense for most undergraduates?

What exactly does a student gain by spending three years in one place? Continuity, perhaps, although this continuity is often broken by a study abroad year of uncertain quality. Access to faculty? Most faculty concentrate on research, with contact hours for undergraduates largely allocated to their postgraduate teaching assistants for at least the first year or two of the undergraduate program. Friends? This may be true, but it doesn’t seem like a good pedagogical reason.

The downsides to staying in one place are equally numerous and seem more compelling. Falling into a routine is not conducive to generating the sort of challenging environment that makes for good academic instruction. Committing to one university may create problems if the student later wants to transfer elsewhere, raising the logistical problems of credit transfer and core curriculum requirements. Lack of mobility may lead to complacency and lack of quality control amongst both faculty and students.

Suppose that instead of being confined to one university, with the possibility of a semester or year abroad, a student could enroll in a centralized, modular program and pick a university on a year-to-year basis? For example, a Dutch student could start their degree in history at Leiden, before transferring to Birmingham to study the Industrial Revolution for the second year, and then writing a thesis on the history of psychology at Vienna in the third year.

This would benefit universities as well, for it would allow them to align their taught offerings with their research priorities. Universities would be free to expand undergraduate offerings in subjects in which they have a comparative advantage. A true free market in higher education would be possible, not the kind envisioned by British neoliberals, but an open system in which publicly-funded and -audited universities offered distinct undergraduate experiences that could be combined into modular degrees.

The bureaucratic infrastructure for such a system is already in place. The Erasmus program facilitates undergraduate exchange between European universities, the Bologna Process is working towards standardizing degree requirements and course credit ratings, and EU treaty obligates member states to charge consistent levels of tuition set at the student’s home national rate. Joint degrees between universities are currently being developed at the postgraduate level and could be adapted for undergraduates as well.

An Erasmus Undergraduate Degree, as it could be called, would be the EU’s undergraduate equivalent of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program for secondary schools. The IB program establishes an international curriculum standard so that mobile youth, often the children of diplomats and other traveling professionals, are able to secure a consistent standard of education while living in any major city in the world. This has great benefits for the graduates of such programs, who are often bi- or tri-lingual and enjoy a vast international social network that will be of use to them later in life. It also encourages broadmindedness, as they have been exposed to multiple schools of thought rather than receiving their entire education in a single intellectual environment.

Expanding the Erasmus program thus seems both doable and highly advisable. A pilot program could be run alongside the legacy university programs to gauge its popularity. It is likely that the results would be beneficial for both students and universities.

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About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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