The sweet and sour of the pick’n’mix degree

Undergraduates at many Irish third-level institutions can now mix core modules with subjects outside that sphere. Is this broadening-out process the future of third level?

In 2002 I graduated from UCD with a bachelor-of-arts degree. In hindsight it was a relative doddle: there was no continuous assessment and not a huge amount of hours. A few years later, I started lecturing and tutoring, and quickly found that my students had a much heavier workload than anything I had ever faced as a college student.

What changed? In 2005 UCD introduced the Horizons programme, a so-called “credit accumulation” system that allows students to choose a module or elective outside their core course.

For instance, a law student can take a class in business, or a science student can do a history module; students who might be majoring in business or history are mixed in with students who are just doing a single class – or module – in that subject (although not all modules are open to all students).

Flexibility in course choice was already commonplace in the US and Canada and, since the 1980s, with varying degrees of success, in the UK.


In my day we had sporadic essays that didn’t really affect our final mark, whereas my students had two per semester, which counted for 50 per cent of their end-of-year grade. We had a few big-bang exams at the end of each year, whereas they had them at the end of each semester.

Suddenly, arts and law students had a taste of the workload facing students in disciplines such as medicine and engineering, and they didn’t always like it. Finding time to get involved in clubs and societies – an important part of the university experience – became more challenging.

Prof Philip Nolan was registrar at UCD when the system was introduced. He was appointed president of Maynooth University in 2012, and quickly set about introducing a credit accumulation system there.

“It came about because there was a concern emerging that graduates really need to be flexible and adaptable and to be able to look at issues from different perspectives, but the curriculum was quite rigid,” he says. “Once you made your choices, you were stuck with them. Studies showed that there were doctors graduating who were too narrow in focus, and engineers with no idea how business worked.

“We wanted to address this, giving students flexibility and choice in terms of their options and encouraging them to look outside their core area, gain fresh perspectives and spark new intellectual interest.”

Maynooth’s bold step

From 2017, Maynooth will take a bold but simple step: allowing students to study arts and science subjects together.

“This could be environmental science with a module on climate change, combining biology and geography, or chemistry and economics, which will be invaluable in tackling climate change,” says Nolan. “And an intellectually challenging option like philosophy and physics would refine both qualitative and quantitative research skills.”

Increasingly, these changes mean that students can effectively “pick and mix” their own degree programme, with more options than ever before. It also makes it easier to provide courses to paying international students – especially those staying just a semester – who provide an increasingly vital income stream for cash-strapped universities.

There seems a certain inevitability to this new way of business. Trinity College Dublin has introduced a select range of cross-faculty and language modules that allow students to study outside their principle discipline to take in subjects such as art, business, gender and society, Irish cinema, philosophy, planet Earth, and science and technology.

UCC is also exploring how it can move towards a more flexible credit-accumulation system.

Not every university, however, is as keen. University of Limerick, DCU and NUI Galway have made only limited moves to broaden module choices.

Modularisation in Ireland has already experience a number of hiccups. In 2011, UCD released an internal report into how it was working out. The report found that some dropouts had felt pressure and uncertainty about an overwhelming number of module choices. It highlighted how students faced a heavy workload. And it expressed concern that when, for instance, second-year arts students find a handful of single-semester science, business or international students sitting on their core modules, it can be difficult for lecturers to build on prior learning; the overall coherence of the programme can suffer because of the individual modules. UCD says it is taking action to improve the system.

Broaden horizons

Mark Rogers, the registrar at UCD, says that the Horizons programme allows students to either broaden their outlook via different subject areas or to deepen their thinking by choosing one in their own area. "Yes, the module can become too dominant and the programme can lose its coherence, but we are undertaking a major curriculum review and enhancement process across 500 programmes at the university," he says.

He adds that the introduction of continuous assessment has meant that a student’s entire college experience doesn’t all come down to one set of high-stakes exams.

“I’m not sure many students would want to go back to the old system,” he says. “That said, we are also working to make sure that we are not overassessing the students.”

Nolan was lucky. He arrived in Maynooth shortly after the UCD report into the challenges posed by modularisation was published, so he must have had the opportunity to learn from their problems and those of a number of UK universities, and to start afresh in Maynooth.

One pitfall avoided: Maynooth’s elective modules are specifically designed and are not part of any core course; they include choices such as “great books” and “poverty and inequality”, and the number of options is relatively tight.

Horizons has encouraged students to think more closely about what they really want out of the university, says Rogers.

“If they’re studying neuroscience, for instance, we want to acknowledge that they had more interests than just neuroscience before college began. They get to see how a different discipline approaches thinking and problem-solving. We think this creates better scholars.”

Academia is not everything in a university education. Volunteering, sports clubs and student societies are a vital part of the campus experience and play an important role in moulding and shaping graduates as citizens.

Employers increasingly demand that students have skills such as communication, teamwork and leadership, and these are skills best developed through extracurricular activities. Universities are coming under pressure to provide some acknowledgement of this.

“Anecdotal evidence does suggest that [post-Horizons] students are more focused on university life than they have been in the past,” says Mark Rogers. “We recognise to need to ensure students get the most out of college life by being involved in life outside the classroom.”

UCD is continuing to devise a number of modules where students can get credit for this activity, such as a programme for maths students for which they assist with teaching in disadvantaged schools.

There is a concern among some staff that extracurricular life shouldn't become solely about credits.This is an issue DCU has been addressing for more than a decade. It was the first Irish third-level college to formally acknowledge and offer credits for extracurricular activities. Its Uaneen module – named after the late broadcaster and DCU graduate Uaneen Fitzsimons – was introduced in 2004. The programme is quite structured, says Una Redmond, manager of the office of student life. "The student is required to have been involved in extracurricular life before they enrol in the module. They get 20 per cent of their marks for their activity, but the rest is about reflecting on what they have learned, and skills and competencies gained."

Avril Jatariu (24), now a postgraduate at Trinity, is an alumnus of the Uaneen module. "I was always involved in college life, including the Model UN, the karate club, Amnesty, and the [educational development] Suas society. Because you're credited for this, it makes it possible for busy final years to stay involved in college life. Throughout the year we had workshops for the module; they included how to organise activities and how to write a reflective essay. We had a mentor for this. I wrote about my involvement in Suas, including how I volunteered in a school in Ireland and one in India, where I taught English."

For Jatariu, it crystallised what she had learned through extracurricular life.

“The essay doesn’t ask you to describe your activities, but to reflect on them. What did you learn? What situations challenged you? How did you overcome them? What would you have done differently? I looked back on my time teaching in India and the challenges of keeping the kids focused, as well as the different ways we approached a ‘speaking festival’ for the students; this required negotiation, teamwork and creativity skills.”

Now in Trinity, Jatariu is involved in the Graduate Students’ Union and, this summer, is due to take on an internship with the Brussels-based Global Governance Institute.

She says that the Uaneen module was a game-changer for her. “I learned so much from it, and it changed how I look at myself and how I can learn from situations in life. I’d definitely recommend it.”