V-c keen for course design to break disciplinary divide

Aberdeen reforms could offer students all-round education in arts and sciences, writes Tariq Tahir

March 20, 2008

Curriculum reforms designed to ensure that students cross disciplines and graduate as "citizens with more than one code of thinking" are being mooted at the University of Aberdeen.

The university has proposed introducing interdisciplinary undergraduate courses as part of a consultation on radical curriculum reform. It might even, in the longer term, consider making it compulsory for students to study outside their chosen discipline.

If agreed, the plans would also create much closer links between undergraduate and graduate-level study, and the awarding of diplomas to students who choose to leave before completing their courses.

A key proposal is to offer what are being called New Aberdeen Courses, influenced by the universities of Melbourne and Harvard, in which a student would follow his or her chosen topic in a course that brings together several disciplines.

C. Duncan Rice, Aberdeen's principal and vice-chancellor, said there was nothing intrinsically wrong with what was on offer at the university.

"We put a huge amount of effort into boosting our research capacity in the past few years, and we're not going to abandon that part of the agenda. But with high-quality research commitments, you've then to ask yourself what that means institutionally for the actual product that the students are getting.

"I would like all Aberdeen graduates to be able to absorb texts well, to understand the fundamental reasoning structures of the different disciplines, to be literate on public policy, and capable of making ethical choices.

"I would like to think that our non-scientific graduates would end up with some scientific preparation and the ones who do science will have some aesthetic and humanistic competence as well."

He added: "The hope is that all students doing a degree in history would do something in, let's say, one of the sciences.

"Whether or not we would make that compulsory is a different matter. We have a lot of market research to do before we make that sort of change ... We want to have citizens who go out with more than one code of thinking."

The principal said there had been a close look at what Melbourne had been doing with its curriculum.

The Australian university has streamlined its programmes so that undergraduates now study for six broad "new generation" degrees before specialising in a professional discipline at postgraduate level.

Professor Rice said the outcome of the consultation would not mean the wholesale adoption of the Melbourne model, not least because many vocational degrees are accredited by professional bodies.

But the reality of graduate study needed to be incorporated in the curriculum. "So much of what a modern university offers is at postgraduate level. When I was a student, there were hardly any graduate students at Aberdeen, but now I think we're close to having 4,000.

"All that has grown up organically without anybody quite noticing. It's time that somebody took a look at how the graduate and undergraduate degree are articulated together."

He also argued that students who dropped out before completing their courses should have something to show for it, so diplomas will be offered to those who have partially completed their degrees.

"One of the difficulties with the old-fashioned structures is that they represent a kind of sudden death. It's assumed, more or less, that everyone (in Scotland) does a four-year degree."

tariq.tahir@tsleducation.com.

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