Postgraduate Courses: Breakdown of discipline at university

More and more students are being allowed to design their own courses from a range of subjects. Stephen Pritchard explains
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Universities that are converting their postgraduate programmes to a modular format aim to create flexible courses that students can dip into throughout their working lives.

Degrees, especially Master's courses, are being changed into self-contained units or modules. Each module has its own contents and syllabus, and sometimes even its own assessment or examination.

A modular course is more flexible than the traditional Master's degree, where the content is largely fixed in advance by the university. In fact, some lecturers believe the term "course" is no longer appropriate. Instead, they refer to Master's programmes. Modular course students are given far more control over the exact make-up of degrees.

This brings two principal benefits. Within a subject area "modularisation" should make it easier to combine course options, and construct a highly personal programme. On paper at least, students can choose from a range of units on offer in their departments; a Master's student reading English Literature should be able to take a module from the faculty's creative writing course, and vice versa.

Still more possibilities are opened up when universities allow students to select modules from other departments. In most cases a Master's course would still contain core units in the student's principal subject area, but options could be drawn from a much wider base.

This makes it far easier for universities to offer interdisciplinary degrees. Often, the more obvious combinations lie within a faculty - English and history modules drawn from a humanities faculty, sociology and politics from social science - but this is not a hard and fast rule. "It gives us the chance to build a critical mass because students are coming on to modules from different degrees," explains Dr Phil Margham, the head of academic development at Liverpool John Moores University and chairman of the northern universities' working group on the module format.

An additional, and substantial, benefit of this is that students can take one, or even a half module from outside their field of study. The numbers pursuing this route could well be greater than those designing truly interdisciplinary degrees.

One example is in language teaching. Postgraduates might want to include a language element in an unrelated degree to compete in overseas job markets.

A common criticism from postgraduates is that voluntary language teaching at universities is often aimed at the beginner or holiday maker rather than the advanced student, and that extra-curricular language courses carry no credits.

Under a modular system a language module can be added to a Master's course, and count towards the final mark. In the same way, an economist could gain credit for a maths or statistics module, and a business studies student for work in computing.

Universities are moving to modular programmes not just to increase the variety of courses but also to make study more flexible. Modular courses were pioneered by the former polytechnics but the idea is spreading.

"Students' needs have changed. We have had to make course structures more flexible," says Ted Nakhley, the academic secretary at the University of Sussex, one of the "old" universities introducing self-contained units to postgraduate degrees.

"We are responding to both the growth in lifelong learning and continuous professional development. Traditionally you left school at 18, did a degree and then a Master's degree. Students need a more flexible structure than that."

At the heart of most modular systems is the use of credits. A fixed number of credits need to be earned for each module. A Master's degree normally requires 180 credits, so a student has to pass modules to this value to gain the degree.

As the standards are fixed in advance and published, credit-based courses open up far greater possibilities for flexible study than the traditional, one-year Master's. It is quite acceptable to take individual modules, units, or even single credit short courses, such as a professional development training session, as a part-time or "associate" student.

All successful credits are recorded, and if a student finds that he or she wants to continue to a full postgraduate qualification, they count towards the total. In this way it is possible to study for a higher degree over a number of years, when time or money allows.

As more universities recognise each others' credit systems, modules no longer have to be taken at the same college - an obvious benefit to anyone whose work means they have to move out of an area.

Even for students who intend to study right through a Master's programme, credits have their advantages. Course objectives are more explicit, so students know where they stand. Regular assessment, "informed progression" in the academic jargon, also makes it easier to track progress. This is especially important on a short course where there is less scope to catch up on material before exams.

There are problems. One concern is that students take higher degrees to become more specialised. Modular degrees aim to widen choice, and the two aims are not always compatible. Universities need to increase the help they offer postgraduates.

"There is a need for support and guidance. You cannot say to a student, 'Here is a range of modules, get on and do it'. There is a need for face- to-face support from an academic adviser," explains Christopher Harris at Anglia Polytechnic University, which was an early adopter of modular postgraduate courses.

Modules also make additional demands on staff; students know what each module should cover in advance and know they can complain if a lecturer does not deliver. "It does put staff on their mettle on a constant basis," says Mr Harris.

The benefits are likely to outweigh the disadvantages, however, and more universities are taking the modular route. This reflects the changing role of higher education.

As Dr Margham puts it: "Going to university is no longer a question of doing a degree and that's it. We hope students will come back to us."