University of Warwick bangs the drum for liberal arts

Preparing to launch its multidisciplinary degree, institution bids others across Europe to follow suit

November 26, 2015
One-man band playing instruments, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Source: Alamy
A new standard: the course caters to those who don’t want to specialise

The first undergraduates are yet to enrol on the new liberal arts degree at the University of Warwick, but already the institution is encouraging others to follow its lead.

The institution, which will welcome students to the new bachelor’s programme next autumn, is part of a European consortium looking to draw up guidelines for the development of liberal arts degrees across the continent.

And Warwick is by no means the first UK university to introduce programmes in liberal arts, which are so deeply embedded in US higher education: King’s College London, University College London and the University of Birmingham are among institutions that have launched such courses in recent years.

Cathia Jenainati, head of liberal arts at Warwick, said that the growing interest in the approach reflected the changing interests of students who traditionally applied for degrees such as English.

“Most of our students today in the UK come to us with three quite focused A levels, and they are forced to decide quite early on what they want to do at university,” Professor Jenainati said. “Increasingly in English, we started to see Ucas forms from students who didn’t really want to specialise early on: people with English and history A levels, but maths and biology, too.

“These are multidisciplinary students who want to think about problems from other disciplines; and although they could take options from outside the faculty, it became clear to us that some students wanted to carry on being multidisciplinary.”

The result was the creation of Warwick’s liberal arts degree. All its students will receive training in research methods and will be expected to present their work at an undergraduate research conference. Internships and overseas study are also part of the programme.

In the first year, all students will follow broad modules on art and revolution, and on science, society and media. In the second year, they will spend half their time on liberal arts modules, exploring the issues of consumption and sustainability. For the rest of their time, students can either specialise in a discipline or follow an “intellectual pathway”, based on one of the “big questions” facing society, with the guidance of a personal tutor.

In the third year, most students will spend three-quarters of their time on their discipline, and they also write a dissertation.

Professor Jenainati argued that a liberal arts degree would prove to be useful preparation for a workplace in which graduates are expected to retrain frequently.

Many employers, she said, wanted graduates who could “think on their feet” and did not rely only on “some fixed framework in which they were trained”.

But Professor Jenainati emphasised that the liberal arts programme was not intended to be an “alternative” to the UK’s traditional honours programmes, but rather “an additional option for those students who are not ready to commit to a particular discipline”.

“I don’t think we can ever get to a point where we have a total liberal arts curriculum, and I don’t think that is desirable,” Professor Jenainati said. “There is a need for specialised graduates in this country; we have some of the best graduates who specialise in disciplines.

“But what we need as well are citizens who have this idea of citizenship ingrained from the first year, which is what liberal arts allows you to do. We need people trained in the liberal arts model to intervene in society and to make positive change.”

In the European project, Warwick is working to develop guidelines for embedding undergraduate research in liberal arts curricula. Other strands of the project, which has received €275,000 (£193,000) from the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme, will explore teaching quality and quality assurance.

Two Dutch institutions, University College Roosevelt and Leiden University College The Hague, are participating in the programme, as are Germany’s Leuphana University of Lüneburg and Lithuania’s Vytautas Magnus University.

Professor Jenainati said that she hoped the project would lead to the development of high-quality liberal arts programmes at more universities across Europe.

“At the moment in Europe, we don’t really have very clear guidelines that harmonise the delivery of liberal education, so we rely on the fact that liberal arts programmes are being delivered in high-quality universities,” she said. “We are trying to think about how we can bring our efforts together to set down some suggested guidelines on how to train teachers and how to implement undergraduate research.”

In numbers

4 – number of continental partner universities helping Warwick draft guidelines on liberal arts degrees 

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