Although an increasing number of top universities now offer a Liberal Arts degree course, it is still a relatively recent and under-publicised development in British higher education. As part of the first cohort of Liberal Arts and Sciences students at the University of Birmingham, it has it has been a constant challenge to explain the nature of my degree to fellow students, with the common response being either confusion or the assumption that I'm doing a type of art course.
At the same time, the flexibility and breadth of module choices available in a Liberal Arts degree leads many to wish they had known about the course before applying to a traditional single honours degree program. Why, therefore, is it such a rarity in the UK to have the option to choose which aspects of a subject interest you, and to explore new academic fields within one course?
The liberal arts model forms the basis of the American higher education system, yet due to the relatively restrictive norm of studying only three or four subjects at A Level, British students are expected to decide what they want to dedicate three (or in some cases up to seven) years of their lives to studying, at the age of sixteen.
By taking French, Spanish and English Literature at A Level, the natural next step for me was to apply to study French and Spanish at university, yet adding Liberal Arts and Sciences to my UCAS form at the last minute was one of the best decisions I have made. I have not only retained my love of languages, but have been able to take an extensive range of modules, from American History to Philosophy, and from International Development to Film Studies. This is all combined with a compulsory themed breadth module, which comprises of a weekly lecture, hearing how different subjects could interpret an overarching theme. For example, one semester, we looked at the concept of modernity, through a medical, scientific and philosophical view-point, compared with the traditional historical way, which enabled me to see other academic interests in a multi-faceted way.
A fellow student on the Liberal Arts course at Birmingham, Julia Vieres agrees that 'It's a great opportunity to discover subject we might not have chosen to study, or have known about, enabling us to find what fits best for us, plus employers today are more interested in breadth than depth.'
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors' group, adds that 'By interacting with students and academics from several disciplines, it may help broaden students' horizons and skills. The aim of all degrees is to produce graduates able to deal with a complex world'
Given the globalised nature of the current job market, employers are seeking students with a wide range of interests and skills sets, which is more likely when they are able to explore a range of subjects. Puneet Tahijm, the Graduate Recruitment Officer at the law firm, DLA Piper UK, adds 'We are looking for graduates who can demonstrate both breadth and enthusiasm for their chosen subject major and who can work with our clients in an environment where innovation, excellence and going the extra mile is the norm.' (sic.) On top of this, it is increasingly common for graduates to change fields part way through their career, and the multi-disciplined background of a Liberal Arts degree will automatically provide a basis of different knowledge that can be transferred to multiple industries.
As a Liberal Arts degree offers complete freedom over what you study, it automatically requires students to think innovatively and creatively about how to combine different disciplines, challenging the traditional paths set by academics. Liberal Arts student Rachel O'Brien, believes that the degree program 'allows you to major or concentrate in areas which are no longer available at undergraduate, like gender studies. Subject areas which have been closed off because they are seen as 'unprofitable' are now being studied again at undergraduate level." It has allowed me personally to take niche modules in subjects such as screenwriting, which would never have been possible had I taken a straight modern languages degree, yet has led me to consider pursuing the subject as a career.
With the cost of attending university a contentious political issue, particularly with the recently announced plans to cut maintenance grants, there is a continued debate about the value of a degree. Higher education is seen as more of an investment, and a step to getting a job, rather than a chance to find out what really interests you. Yet, I know a number of people who have dropped out or changed courses after a year of taking vocational subjects such as medicine and engineering. Young people choosing to attend university at the age of 17 should therefore not be restricted to investing a significant amount time and money into one subject, but instead broadening their educational knowledge and personal skill set, equipping them for any potential career path.
Although it unclear whether Liberal Arts will become a common feature of higher education, the list of British universities offering variations of Liberal Arts courses now includes UCL, Surrey, Exeter, UEA, Bristol and King's College London, as well as Birmingham, most of which offer a year abroad to enhance the variety offered by the program. As I prepare to embark on a year studying at California Polytecnic State University, where I hope to focus more on my potential major in Politics, I would fully recommend to those with any doubt over which subject(s) to take at university to consider the extensive benefits of a Liberal Arts degree.