Higher Education: Art, science and life: Sheffield University is devising a general degree based on local people's needs, not conventional subject divisions. Liz Heron explains

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SHEFFIELD University is planning a campus in a former mining valley that will launch a new form of higher education: the general honours degree.

The University College of the Dearne Valley will offer an innovative crop of broad-based degrees spanning traditional subject boundaries, designed to serve the needs of the local community. Reg Goodchild, Sheffield's Deputy Secretary, says: 'We have evidence from our work in the Dearne Valley and similar communities that broadly based courses have a strong appeal, particularly to adult returners.'

Sheffield has joined a regeneration partnership to develop the Dearne Valley campus, and is in discussion with the Higher Education Funding Council, other government agencies and private companies about funding.

The university's senate made a ruling in October permitting the development of general honours degrees, and these are expected to spread to the main campus from 1994, when all courses will have been organised into modules. Nine further education colleges that offer Sheffield University degrees under a franchise arrangement are eagerly pressing ahead with their own proposals for developing existing diploma courses into broad-based degrees.

Continuing education - a poor relation in many old universities - is taking the lead in devising new subject groupings for the Dearne Valley college, which will not be organised into traditional faculties and departments. William Hampton, Professor of Continuing and Adult Education, who chairs the group charged with devising degrees from arts and social sciences subjects, says: 'We're trying to get away from the idea of subject specialisms and disciplines altogether. We're trying to find new core disciplines around which to base knowledge.'

Sociolinguistics is being mooted as the core subject for an arts-based degree, with content stretching from Shakespeare to Indian poetry and film studies. Two other subject groupings - industrial archaeology and energy studies - draw on the resources and traditions of the Dearne Valley.

'We've got a lot of material for industrial archaeology from the collapse of the second industrial revolution as well as the first,' Professor Hampton says. The subject will draw upon history, chemistry, archaeological techniques, computing and archiving skills.

Energy studies - encompassing economics, various sciences, geology, and business and development studies - has emerged directly from continuing education work with Dearne Valley miners. Professor Hampton says: 'Miners were interested in what was happening to the mining industry in Europe and they specifically asked us for a broad range of subjects.'

Professor Michael Blackburn, who is chairing the group developing courses drawing on the sciences and technology, says: 'The generation, exploitation and handling of knowledge might well emerge as the central strand for students in the science and technology areas at the new university college.'

Professor Blackburn and his colleagues are developing three types of science- based courses. A broad degree in science, technology and society is envisaged, bringing together elements from such disparate disciplines as geology, engineering, environmental studies, biology and physics.

But stand-alone science modules will also be provided for students following liberal arts programmes. A number of unique science subject groupings being developed are still under wraps.

Next week the arts and science groups will meet to mesh their ideas into an outline plan for an integrated curriculum. 'Considerable interest has been expressed at the highest levels in the HEFC,' Mr Goodchild says.

Sheffield will hold further talks with the HEFC in the new year and present detailed plans in the early spring. A decision is expected from the funding council in March.

If this hurdle is passed, the university will face the further obstacle of convincing professional associations such as the Law Society that the general honours degree is a valid prerequisite for entering training in the professions. Mr Goodchild says: 'We will be approaching professional associations as appropriate for their consideration and recognition. Whether that can be in whole or in part remains to be seen. I think it is more likely to come through in some of the arts-based areas.'

Other English universities - including Lancaster and Leicester - offer combined degrees that allow students to take more than two subjects for most of their course and to draw one subject from across the arts-science divide. But they do not see these evolving into general honours degrees.

A closer parallel is the Scottish system, in which students typically follow two years of general study in the arts or sciences before going on to single or joint honours in their third and fourth years. 'Ordinary degrees' awarded after the first two years are now simply called degrees.

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