For many, returning to university has involved the stress of having to choose a new subjects for the year. While the opportunity to choose interesting topics can be fun, this can often be restricted both by compulsory courses and by the need to take an outside option. But how far are compulsory courses useful or would entirely optional courses be more advantageous?
Compulsory courses are designed to give students foundational skills for their degree, which arguably is a significant help when starting university. As a first year it is scary to go straight into a course without knowing what level is expected from you, and this worry that the step-up in work might be overwhelming continues throughout the degree period. Having that guarantee of learning basic skills and techniques to develop is a great comfort. This is especially helpful for students coming from different countries, age groups and subject backgrounds.
As well as in-course compulsory modules, students in many schools are required to take outside courses during first and second year. These allow students to study subjects which they would otherwise be unable to, therefore fostering and furthering interests beyond the degree area.
Outside modules also allow for students to change their degree area or move to a joint degree. Without the chance to study a different topic this would be a lot more difficult for some and impossible for many.
For students studying scientific subjects, or vocational degrees such as Law, there is a much greater need for the compulsory components of the degree. These degrees do have set knowledge which is essential both to their study, and for most related jobs after university. For vocational and scientific courses, it is essential to continue with compulsory modules. Perhaps for more variable degrees, such as history or politics, they are less necessary.
For some humanities degrees, compulsory modules are intended to teach skills for improvement leading into further years. In these cases, it should be asked how much they teach that can’t be developed through other, chosen, courses? Some degrees have the scope for choice of courses but it is hugely restricted by compulsory courses. For example, first year history students now have three in-course compulsory modules which only allows them to choose one other history option. By contrast, social anthropology allows two-thirds of the modules during pre-honours years to be made up of outside courses. The early years of a degree provide the chance to find topics which inspire interest, which is important to both maintaining student interest in the degree itself, and in finding subjects to continue into honours years.
Outside courses can also be problematic for some. Many, although certainly not all, students coming to university have spent time choosing a degree which they want to study, or which will lead on to future opportunities. For some who are less certain on their degree, or those who wish to have more variety during their first years of university, the option of an outside module should be available but perhaps they should not be compulsory for all.
Of course in many cases, compulsory courses can be useful. For science students, and those doing degrees directly related to future jobs, they are an integral part of study and cannot be avoided. While other courses do not need compulsory courses to the same extent, they can still be seen as important. Other modules can build skills necessary for moving through the years, but ultimately a compulsory component entirely dedicated to building and improving on core abilities is far more effective in aiding students through their degree.
However, not all compulsory courses are this useful. Perhaps it would be better if some of these compulsory courses, especially outside subjects, became ‘recommended’, rather than ‘essential’.
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