Degree programmes for the future: Inter-galatic Communication, Space Tourism or Hoverboard Design?

What do you get if you put together a group of academics from various disciplines who’ve never met before than ask them to design a degree course for the future? Not a degree in space tourism, intergalactic communication or hoverboard design, but a course which addresses a very immediate concern – that of the global ageing population. That was the challenge for our multidisciplinary group at the recent University Alliance ‘sandpit’ event at Nottingham Trent University.

Hoverskull - Jonas Bødtker

Not for the course we designed!

I will not get into a discussion about whether our present degree courses, bound largely in ‘disciplines’ which emerged in the latter quartile of the nineteenth century are fit for the present, let alone the future. Our brief was to cast off our collective baggage and come up with a degree programme which would somehow address a present challenge –namely that people are living longer and an increasing proportion of the world’s population consists of older people.

The only real rule in our brief was that the programme had to be at undergraduate level degree. We didn’t have to worry about whether the programme fitted in with any existing (real or imagined) institutional regulations.

The degree my group designed was called ‘BA (Hons) Lifelong Learning and Consultancy’ – I’m sure that given more than a two days, we would have been able to come with a catchier title for the programme. The proposed programme is aimed at older learners, possibly those who have recently retired from the police or armed forces, have been made redundant from ‘traditional’ industries or are just wanting a new challenge. Is was envisaged that learners would use their existing skills and experience to assist younger students on ‘traditional’ degrees and to work with community groups. The assessments would be largely project-based and by the end of the programme graduates would be able to facilitate learning and change in range of organisations as well as being able ‘deliver consultancy at a professional level’ (a direct quote from our programme proposal form!).

Module grid for BA (Hons) Lifelong Learning and Consultancy

At the end of the two days the facilitators expressed excitement that each group had managed to produce a plausible degree programme. The question then arose about why these things take so long in real practice. On this occasion we had the advantage that we had all allocated two days to this exercise, and by our very attendance at the event we were sufficiently open-minded to believe that something could be achieved. Unbound by the fetters of our institutions’ rules and regulations, no ideas were rejected on the grounds that our plans would be unacceptable to some committee or would violate institutional rules about contact time or assessment regulations and there was no reason to concern ourselves with the requirements of a professional body.

After attending the event and speaking to others afterwards here are a few thoughts / observations:

1. Is quality assurance (in all its local and national forms) inhibiting innovation in the design of courses, modules etc.? Too many conversations in universities revolve around what is allowed, rather than what is good.
2. Can more be achieved, faster, if we simply had the time and inclination to all get together for a day or two and focus on a particular task?
3. As a group we were unburdened by hierarchies, disciplinary traditions and a desire to preserve ‘our bit’ of the curriculum. I had not met any of my fellow group members before and did not know their ‘rank’ or standing in their disciplines.
4. This might be controversial, but would higher education be better served if everybody in academia was as open minded as the people who attended the sandpit?
5. A conversation which arose at a subsequent meeting considered issues of agility. Are our courses too slow to change to meet new challenges and the development of new technologies? Are our graduates equipped for the future or merely for the recent past? We sometimes moan about companies only seeking ‘oven ready graduates’, but does our lack of agility mean that we are serving graduates who have been the oven and are now going stale?

Tram in Nottingham
Trams are coming back. Skills and knowledge of the past needed again.

The idea of passing on skills from one generation to another is one which I think is very important and formed a key idea in our planned degree scheme. I’m not thinking solely about passing on the skills of a dying local craft, but broader skills which seem to be disappearing like the ability to put up shelves or a saw a piece of wood in a straight line. I’ve learned some of these skills from books and from YouTube, but a lot of people my age have never felt the need to acquire these skills. It would be a shame if they were to become restricted to a small group of professionals.

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