University course flexibility ‘working’ for students

A university which has reduced the number of specialised entry courses says the positive response shows it has been a good move for students.

Maynooth University (MU) offers arts students a wider choice of subjects in first year, rather than restricting themselves to very specific paths in their Central Applications Office (CAO) forms.

MU said 58% of the 1,364 students who began arts degrees last autumn chose to pursue a wider range of studies. This allowed them to take up to four different subjects in first year, one more than in the past, before narrowing down to two from second year onward.

The other 42% chose to specialise from the beginning of their studies on one particular field, choosing two modules in one subject and one each in two others to make up their four first-year subjects.

The changes were facilitated by reducing the number of entry courses for Leaving Certificate applicants from 45 in 2014 to around 30 last year. The reduction last year included removing options to choose arts degrees in anthropology, history, English, or politics from MU’s list of CAO courses.

MU president Prof Philip Nolan said an option in the CAO form to indicate which subjects they might wish to pursue saw more students choose those subjects than previously picked them as standalone courses.

“This indicates that students really appreciate flexibility and being able to declare their options, but also to keep them open,” he said.

Prof Nolan said it shows the wider system that, when given these kinds of choices, students use them sensibly.

“Some come to university knowing exactly what they want to do, and our new curriculum still caters for them. But others need time and space to understand what, for example, sociology is, or what studying business is all about,” he said.

Prof Nolan had expressed concerns last year that some universities were not taking the same steps to offer less restricted entry choices for prospective students as MU. However, he said he now expects others to follow suit more quickly, owing to increasing demand to study there or at colleges taking similar steps.

MU had a slightly higher-than-average (3%) increase in students choosing one of its courses as their first preference last year. However, it also reports that 16% more students with at least 450 CAO points got onto its degree courses in 2016.

University College Dublin has been reducing CAO entry choices with broader first-year courses for several years, and the University of Limerick cut CAO courses from 71 in 2015 to 41 this year.

MU said one in four of its current 3,000 first-year undergraduate students took an optional critical skills course this year, designed to help develop analytic, problem-solving and communication skills. Arts students could choose it as one of their four first-year subjects and were more likely than those in other faculties to pick it, with lowest uptake being among science students.

Feedback from those who piloted the course last year showed the majority found it helpful for their study of other subjects. Uptake was lower among students who got into MU with lower CAO points, but Prof Nolan hopes that can be improved.

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