University and college courses used to offer a more limited and specialist choice. That usually meant a single or combined honours course with the chance to study one or two supporting subjects in the first year if you were lucky. Now almost everyone has gone modular and, at least in theory, choice abounds and it is possible to put together a course involving a number of different topics. However, just because something is described as a module does not mean that it fits neatly together with everything else that's on offer. If you really want the chance to build a degree course that is a perfect match to your needs look carefully at the small print and get advice from academic staff.

Some universities, particularly the "new" ones offer arrangements where instead of applying for a single subject you can apply to enter a modular scheme. This delays the need to come up with a specific subject choice until after you are at university. A similar system has operated for centuries in the Scottish universities where you are admitted to a faculty, not a department, and may have as long as two years to decide which subject(s) you want to take at Honours level.

Most of the old universities in England have not yet adopted this approach and still expect you to apply for a specific subject or subjects. However, most do allow changes afterwards, although they tend to be alert to the possibility that people may try to get into popular subjects by applying for less popular ones and then requesting a transfer. You will usually find it is more difficult to transfer into courses that lead into the professions like medicine or law. These kind of courses are also likely to be less flexible because students have to cover particular subjects to get exemption from professional examinations.

CASE STUDIES

A sample of what modules mean in different universities.

Coventry

First-year students can choose at least two of the eight modules that make up their programme. In addition, they can do short courses in things like: music, sport, coaching, performing arts, first aid, art or health and fitness.

However, you still apply through UCAS for a named discipline in the normal way and then structure the course to meet your specific requirements once you arrive.

Essex

First year gives opportunity to try new subjects and you have the

option of changing degree course at the end of the year if you wish. Has 17 academic departments grouped in five schools of study: Comparative Studies, Social

Sciences, Law, Mathematical and Computer Sciences, and Science and Engineering. If you accept a place, detailed information is available to help you choose your first year courses. What you choose decides which school you will join. It is all going to be phased in for October 1995.

Plymouth, Aberystwyth

and many others

Have not only modularised but also divided their academic year into two semesters, the first

ending in mid-February, the second in June. Each semester is 15 weeks long and ends with a three- week assessment period. No one knows quite how this will develop in the future as most of the courses are in their early stages, but certainly it offers great scope for change and innovation.

Warwick

Has not followed the modular path, feeling that they are more the preserve of the new universities. Tries hard to offer a wide range of courses and options within strict guidelines specifying that a high percentage of the main subject must be studied, to prevent what some term, a pick 'n' mix degree.

Our regular correspondent Viv Neale recently visited a university fair and asked stall holders whether their universities had gone modular.

It seemed a fairly innocuous question: "Do your students do modular degrees?" However, it provoked some very different responses. Some representatives treated me to a diatribe about how modules were lowering academic standards, while others enthusiastically described the packages offered by their universities.

It seems that Higher Education is still rather divided about this new kid on the block, although it is accepted that modularising degrees makes them more flexible, both in terms of what you do and the speed at which you have to do it. It is particularly significant that it makes it much easier to take time out from your degree programme if you need to earn money, take a career opportunity or deal with a crisis.

The most common disparaging remark was that modules encourage "supermarket degrees", awarded to students treating going to university like a meander round Tescos. Tutors seemed particularly worried about the problem of structuring courses to suit both those doing a single subject in depth and those taking more exotic combinations like say chemistry and drama.

However, the more positive view was that many teething problems have been overcome and undergraduates can now experience the kind of flexibility that should make their degree courses relevant to the every changing demands of the work place - for example, by offering opportunities to study a modern language, computing or management alongside their main subject.

At some Universities this flexibility is being enhanced further by the development of Minimodules, often open to the public as well as staff and students. They are usually timetabled on Saturdays or in the evenings and can cover anything from technical skills to philosophy. You con do them for fun or, if appropriate, as part of a full programme of study. The going rate seeming to be that three mini-modules add up to one full- sized one.

FOR EACH MODULE

YOU WANT TO CHECK:

l are there quotas on the numbers able

to take it?

l are any pre-requisites specified, like for

example an A-level in a particular subject?

l do the class times clash with anything

else you want to do?

For the whole modular scheme check:

l you are going to have an academic

"home", even though you may be going to

study a number of different subjects

offered by separate departments. Some

students on modular programmes find

that everyone seems to think they are

someone else's problem.

l you will have regular updates on your

progress.

l you will have regular access to an

academic adviser.

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