Southampton reforms aim to add 'breadth to depth'

Revamped curriculum to offer students a 'value proposition' post fees hike. Hannah Fearn reports

January 27, 2011

The University of Southampton is to reform its undergraduate curriculum to offer students "breadth and depth" to coincide with the rise in tuition fees.

From 2012, students at the university will be able to study modules from outside their core disciplines and select from a series of common interdisciplinary courses.

Other trailblazers in curriculum reform - including the universities of Hong Kong and Aberdeen - offer new four-year undergraduate programmes that allow students extra time to study other areas alongside their main subjects.

But Southampton is the first UK university with a three-year degree structure to announce that it will overhaul its entire undergraduate curriculum in 2012-13.

Speaking to Times Higher Education last week at the launch of the Curriculum Innovation Network, a joint venture with the University of Aberdeen, Don Nutbeam, vice-chancellor of Southampton, said he felt change was essential if UK institutions were to offer undergraduates a high-quality education. Having returned to the UK after years abroad, Professor Nutbeam "realised our education system is not fit for purpose...we start to create a narrow education system at school and university makes it worse".

Although a formal structure for the curriculum has not been finalised, it will be based on the principles of choice and flexibility, he said. He promised that the university would be "adding breadth to depth, not replacing depth".

Like the University of Hong Kong and others, Southampton has named a set of "graduate attributes" it hopes its students will have acquired by the time they graduate: global citizenship, ethical leadership, research and enquiry skills, academic skills, communication skills and the ability to be "reflective" learners.

As well as increasing the range of modules students can choose from, common interdisciplinary modules will be developed on important contemporary issues, with interdisciplinary supervision also available for dissertations.

Professor Nutbeam said that the reforms would be rolled out as quickly as possible to prevent the institution from succumbing to "analysis paralysis".

"We're just going to try this to see if it works," he said.

The university will also introduce a "student passport", which will provide a way of accrediting involvement in activities outside the lecture theatre that are valued by employers, such as volunteering.

Southampton may also offer some students the chance to progress down a "rapid completion" route, allowing them to graduate with honours in two or two and a half years.

Debra Humphris, pro vice-chancellor for education at Southampton, said the curriculum and the level of choice it offered would help the university to provide a "value proposition" to students faced with higher fees and rising student debt. This would also entail improving staff-to-student ratios, increasing teaching contact hours and improving assessment and feedback, she added.

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