Liberal arts in the UK: how are students finding the model?

With Regent’s University London the latest to offer the US-style of undergraduate education, Natasha Turner looks at how courses are being received elsewhere

February 4, 2016
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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 specifically designed for the liberal arts degrees, rather than being a compilation of modules from different university 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 programmeits 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.”

Changes to liberal arts courses have sometimes been initiated by students. At the University of Exeter, at the request of students, the number of core modules was reduced, and students were given more opportunity to choose modules based on their own interests.

At King’s College, Aaron Rosen, a liberal arts lecturer, said that students’ desire for more group work “led us to shape a final-year core module that provides them with experience establishing their own research parameters and methodologies”.

A growing intake has also been the biggest development to existing UK programmes so far. 

UCL had 87 students initially and now has 120 students in their first year of the course. King’s College London started out with 30 students and took in more than 80 in the most recent cohort. Exeter has 21 final-year students and 37 first-year students.

The students on these courses are high achievers – A*AA is the common entry requirement – and, despite the common stereotype that liberal arts is for students who are yet to realise what they wish to study, they benefit from having a learning path in mind.

At Birmingham, students are contacted before they begin the course to see if they know what they want to major in. Majors are encouraged and are ideally determined by the end of the first year. Many majors have certain A-level requirements.

Dr Spencer said: “When we’re talking to potential applicants or offer-holders, we always say to them that it is much harder to study across multiple disciplines. 

“You have to be very sure when you come to do this sort of programme that you have the confidence and the resilience to operate in that more challenging learning environment.”

Mr Gombrich added that students on UCL’s arts and sciences course are the ones who took a range of A levels and have an interest and competence in both subject areas.

But students who take these added pressures into their stride are likely to receive a breadth of knowledge and acquire skills across many disciplines.

Giving employers what they want

Florence Gomez, director of liberal arts at Exeter, said that the university’s programme “supports students to be fully founded thinkers who can solve global problems and work across a range of disciplines. Liberal arts education trains the mind without overloading it with acquired knowledge to create global citizens.”

Graduate recruiters are also noticing the benefits of liberal arts skills in a professional environment.

“What employers increasingly want, are people who have that ability to go from the macro to the micro and back again very readily,” Dr Spencer said. 

“That ability to move in and out of focus and perspective is something that a lot of employers, from talking to our careers network, value as a skill itself rather than the traditional discipline-specific skill set.”

The first cohort have just graduated from UCL and have gone on to work in corporations, banks and law firms as well as taking up further study. Those soon to graduate from other programmes are looking to work in policy, development, teaching, computer science, the charity sector, communications, and more.

“There’s a huge diversity of aspirations,” said Dr Spencer.

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