Winchester restates first principles with 'generalist' liberal arts degree

New course aims to produce critical thinkers with broad knowledge. Rebecca Attwood reports

February 12, 2009

The University of Winchester is to launch a degree in the "liberal arts", in what it describes as a "brave restatement" of the core purpose of higher education.

Although full details have yet to be revealed, the "generalist" course will bring together elements from the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and fine arts.

The university said it wanted to offer students an alternative to the national norm of specialist, discipline-specific degrees - in what will be a first in England.

Nigel Tubbs, professor of philosophical and educational thought at Winchester, is developing the course. He said: "In the UK, there are only a handful of undergraduate programmes that claim to offer anything like a liberal education. When students apply to university today, they know they must choose a discipline, but I don't believe that is what every student wants."

Initially, the course will run as one half of a joint-honours programme with an intake of about 20 students in 2010. Winchester, which argues that generalist and specialist studies can co-exist and benefit each other, said the course would be designed to encourage students' critical-thinking skills "within a broad educational experience that crosses traditional boundaries".

Professor Tubbs said: "Today the term 'liberal arts' can mean lots of different things. I'm interested in the original intention, about what happens in the search for first principles that express the conditions of the possibility of the human intellect and the natural universe.

"Understanding these conditions was always the aim of the liberal arts. Our programme will continue this tradition, exploring the fate of first principles in the modern world while rejecting the idea that such study should be restricted to a social elite."

He said many in higher education seemed resigned to the idea that now is not the right time for innovative curriculum reforms or "brave restatements" of alternative higher-education visions.

"Might it be the case that it is precisely at times when change seems most impossible that it is most urgently required?" he asked.

Professor Tubbs said higher education in the liberal arts could be traced back to Aristotle and Pythagoras in Ancient Greece.

In medieval Europe, they were organised around logic, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, music, geometry and astronomy.

Cardinal Newman's work The Idea of a University (1852) grounded a liberal education in religion and philosophy.

"In a sense, this is not a 'new' course at all - it is the oldest in Western higher education," Professor Tubbs said.

Liberal arts courses are often seen as being at the opposite end of the educational spectrum from vocational curriculums.

Joy Carter, the university's vice-chancellor, is also chair of the University Vocational Awards Council, an organisation that exists to champion and promote vocational learning.

"Some people might say that by doing this we are not representing the Government's agenda, but I don't think that's right," Professor Carter said. "Often what employers say they want is someone with a broad knowledge who can think for themselves. That is what this degree will be all about.

"We have excellent vocational courses at Winchester, and I am very supportive of them. I think we can do both, and that the two are complementary."


Demand for science graduates will more than double in less than a decade, according to research carried out by the Warwick Institute for Employment Research.

The study - commissioned by the Engineering Technology Board, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Council for Industry and Higher Education - predicts that demand for graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM subjects) will increase much faster than those from other disciplines.

Demand for graduates from the biological sciences and computing is set to rise by 122 and 95 per cent respectively, with an 80 per cent rise predicted for technology graduates.

Engineers, doctors and physical scientists will also benefit.

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