New models of undergraduate curricula, the identification of graduate attributes and approaches to teaching and learning were all topics covered in our recent conference here in Galway. Over the last several years, many institutions across the world have embarked on curricular reform projects, some radical and others being more of a ‘re-packaging’. At the conference (technically, the ‘Galway Symposium’) we heard an overview of some of these from Camille Kandiko (co-editor of  a recent book on the topic). Of course everyone working in this field knows about the Melbourne approach which probably fits on the ‘radical’ end of the spectrum, not least of the reasons being the high levels of controversy it generated and its association with restructuring, budgetary cuts and the ilk. In this case, the university aimed for a more broad undergraduate experience, specialising at the Masters level.  Others have taken very different approaches, such as that of Aberdeen, whereby ‘broadening’ courses are made available to students in any degree programme. Usually these are centred around major ‘global challenges’ or other topical issues, linking in perhaps also with culture or the environment. Aberdeen, founded in 1495, is able to brand these as ‘sixth Century courses.’

Another speaker at the Symposium presented an overview of the notion of the ‘liberal arts’ and how a modern interpretation (which is perhaps rightly called the ‘liberal arts and sciences’) is now the basis of undergraduate institutions in the Netherlands. Small ‘university colleges’ which are run by the existing institutions, but which are based on small classes, residence and high-scoring entrants (often international students) are now becoming well-established as part of that country’s HE landscape. Marijk van der Wende of Amsterdam University College spoke of her experience in establishing and managing such a venture.

Within Ireland, recent announcements have come from NUI Maynooth regarding their plans for a more general, liberal arts type approach and other institutions are considering their offerings. This is an appropriate thing to do now that we’re in an era where progression from school to higher education is the norm rather than the exception. Others have described this as a shift not towards ‘mass higher education’ but even (when participation rates climb to over 70%) ‘universal’, although those of us interested in access and social equity issues might not go so far as that.

The latest edition of the Times Higher has a short article by the Vice Chancellor and President of Adelaide University which summarises his new model, which he claims goes back closer to the Humboldt model (see earlier posts!) of engaging students in research-like activity from the very beginning of their studies. It’s an interesting approach because it also is based around small group study, and tries also to exploit the ‘flipped class’ trend by separating the ‘delivery of content’ from intellectual engagement. Of course, how its done in practice and the extent to which they have realistic approaches to the amount of self-study students are expected to do and the context in which this is done, will be critical to determining whether this might be construed by academics as a means of ‘offloading’ teaching hours. That’s not the intention and the small group sessions should more than make up for this. (Interestingly, another article in the same edition, shows the benefits of closer work with students, providing feedback on essays face-to-face). It’s definitely going to be an example that is worth watching particularly since, from this article at least, it looks like from the outset there are attempts to develop the approach in partnership with academics and their unions.

For more information about the Symposium and recordings of the Keynote presentations, please visit http://www.nuigalway.ie/celt/conference/conference13.html