Open Eye: From The Vice-Chancellor - Name your next degree

Sir John Daniel
Thursday 04 March 1999 00:02 GMT
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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In matters curricular the Open University blends ancient and modern academic traditions. It adopted the Oxbridge tradition of designating all its undergraduate degrees as Bachelor of Arts - even for graduates whose courses were in the Natural Sciences. However, in a radical break with previous custom the OU eliminated academic entry requirements for admission, pruned pre-requisites within programmes and encouraged students to combine courses from a variety of disciplines.

These principles remain the foundation of the Open University curriculum today but their expression has evolved to reflect the wishes of students and employers and wider developments in higher education. In the early 1990s there were two significant changes. First, the OU introduced a three- year (equivalent full-time) honours degree. Second, it provided a Bachelor of Science degree for graduates concentrating in scientific or mathematical disciplines.

For the Millennium the OU is introducing another new option, of interest not only to current students, but also to the many alumni who return to do second, third and even (yes, there are a few) fourth Bachelors degrees. This option is a named degree. Such degrees have long been standard at other universities and in the mid-1990s the OU Student Association and the Faculty of Arts urged the OU to adopt this practice.

Senate backed the idea and an implementation group concluded its work at the end of 1998. In introducing named degrees the OU will continue to offer students a wide range of curricular choice while also responding to contemporary trends such as the specification of learning outcomes for each programme. Named degrees will be honours degrees but the option of a BA or BSc without honours remains, as does the option of taking an honours degree that does not carry a subject name. The University is eager to continue to encourage those who want to put together their own degree profile using courses in a variety of subjects. I hear many stories of OU students who have decided to explore an area in depth as a result of taking a first course in the subject because it sounded interesting. Indeed, I suspect that many of those who take several OU Bachelors degrees do so because as they complete one degree they are still tempted by other course descriptions.

The variety of approaches to constructing individual degree profiles reflects the diversity of the OU student body.

Many students range widely across the curriculum but many others focus their study on a particular area, sometimes on a single discipline but more often on topics within a broader theme.

The first slate of named degrees to be offered in 1999-2000 is based on twenty of the most frequently studied concentrations. They cover and include courses from all areas of the OU curriculum: from Business to Literature; from Law to Natural Sciences; from Health Studies to International Studies; and from Economics and Mathematical Sciences to Information Technology and Computing - to name only a few.

Some colleagues worried that the introduction of named degrees would introduce the academic equivalent of hardening of the arteries, namely a hardening of discipline categories and a weakening of the interdisciplinary approach for which the OU is rightly celebrated. I believe that we have avoided that risk by the way we have designed the degrees. Many of them will actually intensify interdisciplinary work by drawing on courses from more than one faculty.

The introduction of named degrees has provided the OU with a timely pretext to follow through on one of the key recommendations of the 1997 Dearing Report on Higher Education, which was that each university degree programme should carry statements of learning outcomes - the skills and knowledge that graduates have acquired through their studies. The OU welcomes this opportunity to take further the work that it has already done by explicitly integrating key skills into its courses and mapping those courses onto relevant occupational standards. One likely knock-on effect of this will be a gradual move to offer residential short courses with separate credits rather than integrating residential schools into longer courses as we do now. For some named degrees particular residential short courses (e.g. for laboratory work) may be mandatory. Offering them separately will give students greater flexibility.

In summary, named degrees are an exciting new opportunity for OU study that will be attractive to alumni as well as to current and future students.

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