Amy Shimmin: For
I was the only student at my English sixth-form to cross the border North: while most students were motivated by staying near to home, the students who went on to scatter across Britain strangely didn’t find their way up the M6. While the city of Glasgow and the variety in my chosen degree subjects initially attracted me, it was the flexible system – unlike any degree programme I’m aware of in England – which won me over.
In my first year I was able to study something I never had before; in my second year I studied a subject whose specialists are based on University Gardens. It made learning enjoyable. While of course, I was keen to get good grades in the courses I followed, it was refreshing to study something new, yet know that it wouldn’t necessarily form the basis of any qualification: something I hadn’t had the opportunity to do before at a reasonable level. The courses I followed didn’t necessarily directly compliment my degree – that’s beside the point. The grades-focused approach of schools removes the inherent joy that can come from learning, so for me, my first two years at University reignited that – isn’t that why we come into further study, anyway?
The system offers an incomparable level of flexibility, too. The subjects I applied for via UCAS are the subjects I’ll (fingers cross) graduate with in June, but who could have known if I’d truly enjoy them? I’ve lost count of the number of friends who found out that their initial degree path wasn’t for them, but instead of resitting years or dropping out, they’ve been able to switch their programme with ease. Without appearing condescending, 17 and 18 are young ages to make lifelong decisions – even though I had a good enough idea to apply for a degree in them, I definitely didn’t know for certain then if I’d truly enjoy my degree subjects for another five years.
While students from the rest of the UK may lament their graduation taking a year or two longer than their friends educated outside of Scotland, the Scottish system actually appears more in line with international programmes. In the USA, for example, liberal arts style degrees are the norm, with students able to “major” in a subject, yet not study it exclusively. “Liberal arts” when searched outside of Scotland on UCAS returns a mere 44 searches; by comparison, my degree programme returns 247. One of those 44 courses is available at a university I strongly considered, and which ranks similar to Glasgow in league tables. It describes its programme as having a similar “major” system as the USA, but students will graduate with a BA in Liberal Honours, not the programme of their major. Glasgow, and indeed the traditional Scottish programme, in fact blends the positives of liberal arts study and focused subject-specific study.
The traditional Scottish system is to be applauded, not condemned. Its flexibility allows us to develop as academics and offers a system unique in the UK – this is a difference we should celebrate, not seek to dismantle.
Kristy Leeds: Against
I, like many other English students, felt the allure of Scottish universities because of my chronic indecisiveness. The three subject system appeared a perfect way to facilitate me not knowing what on earth to do with my life, other than knowing I wanted it to head down the university avenue. However, it would be naive to argue this lack of direction is useful and it would be ignorant to suggest that the system itself, by any means, is perfect.
In fact, many people, particularly Scottish people, think the system is a bit pointless and maybe even useless. Scots are lucky to coast through university without any tuition fees, yet for some, this comes at a cost of having to endure two or more wasted subjects in order to earn credit in the first years. Wasted subjects mean wasted time, wasted effort and fundamentally, wasted stress. How many times have you been stressed about a subject and getting a certain grade, only for it to be completely insignificant in the long run? This could demotivate and distract you and means you are less efficient in doing your actual degree, as you must split your time between more subjects and have a potentially larger workload. Additionally, this added pressure, sometimes from subjects you may not even enjoy, could in some severe cases be detrimental to mental health.
Not only this, but it must be pretty demotivating for lecturers and tutors when half the class fails to turn up and the other half is bored and disinterested. In addition, although there is no tuition cost for Scottish students, there is the added expense of the extra year, with the un-quantified opportunity cost of a lost year in the workplace or doing a masters.
Furthermore, for all of this, there is not even an additional qualification. No official recognition of your work for two years, making up as much as two-thirds of all your credits. With one subject course, you can still have a wide and detailed subject knowledge, but you use your time more efficiently and you become more of a specialist more quickly. Essentially, it cuts the crap out. If you don’t like your subject, you know quickly, and you can do something about it, or leave university altogether if it’s not for you. On the other hand, if you love your subject, you get more absorbed into it. Therefore, I concur: three is not the magic number.