Try mix and match

There are plenty of vacancies for modular degrees. Karen Gold assesses the risks and merits
WHY commit yourself to only one degree when you can have the choice of five? That is the question asked by Martin Brady, head of modular degree programmes at London Guildhall University, and by other modular degree organisers.

A few years ago only a handful of colleges ran modular degrees and almost nobody had heard of them. Now more than half of universities and colleges offer courses that are broken up into separate units covering different subjects, and still many applicants hesitate over them before applying for safe old BA geography or B Sc biology.

Their conservatism could be your opportunity. Even though there are fewer courses left in "clearing" than in some years, the numbers in modular degrees and those in the "combined" degree category are still striking. Altogether 22 universities and colleges advertised places last week on combined arts degrees, 38 had vacancies in combined social science degrees, and 49 had places on combined science courses, some requiring no more than four A-level points.

Students on these programmes can study the subjects they have always wanted to take, often with lower A-level grades than required for traditional single or joint honours courses, and try out something new.

Mr Brady says the 40 per cent of all London Guildhall students on the modular programme are able to delay choosing their exact degrees until the end of the first year. During that year they can study two or three subjects.

"Students often don't know what it is they want before they have dipped their toes in it," he says. "They may come in having been influenced by their teachers, their parents or their peer group, and thinking they want a job as as accountant. Then they find out by the end of the first year, having done a bit of sociology, that their real interest is in that. They really appreciate having that choice."

The attraction for universities in running modular schemes is that if they recruit too few students to one subject, they can make up the numbers on another. Combined Studies, where you do two or more subjects, works in a similar way. For example, you can study anything from English to Catering Systems to Urban Policy on Sheffield Hallam University's combined studies degree; while Sunderland's combined programme includes American Studies, Geology, Music and Spanish.

It seems to be the general titles of these degrees that put off some applicants. Yet there are still places on courses with these general titles that provide a rich mix of literature, politics, philosophy, history and social science - all often harder to get into as free-standing courses.

The other courses that often have more vacancies than you would expect are new or unusual. The unusual ones have places simply because many would- be students do not have the confidence to look beyond their A- level subjects - even though later they often regret being so unadventurous.

There may be vacancies in new courses for the same reason, but more often these exist because the courses were not approved by the university's standards committee in time to get into the prospectus. (They must be before you can get a grant: it is worth checking if you see a note saying "subject to" or "awaiting validation.")

So last week there were still places for "Deaf Studies" on a modular degree at Wolverhampton University: a course that you could combine with another subject and which would train you in sign language and qualify you to work with deaf people. The sporty can do Golf Course Studies at West of England, Central Lancashire and De Montfort universities.

New courses that have empty places include Environmental Management and Technology at Heriot-Watt ; Art and Design History, including options in journalism, advertising and publishing, at Southampton Institute; International Marketing at De Montfort, and MEng Software Engineering with placements in industry at Bradford University.

All these have an element of risk. You may not enjoy some of your modular units. You may find the first weeks of a new course rather chaotic. You may be teased about an unusual course. But if you cannot be adventurous when you go to university, when can you?