One of the key questions regarding Higher Education (HE) curriculums is concerned with the extent to which a curriculum should be flexible. For our own undergraduate studies, the curriculum consists of a relatively fixed set of courses. This set-up seems logical, after all: Why would we expect students’ assessment of the knowledge or skills required for the discipline to be more advanced than that of educational professionals active in the field for many years? Yet, the use of electives, tracks, or specialisations has become a staple in many undergraduate programmes.
As part of a project on mapping the undergraduate political science curriculum, we calculated the proportion of course credits that are optional in 225 undergraduate programmes. This measure of flexibility shows significant variation as highlighted in the figure below.
Considering the curriculum is the backbone of a programme, one can expect this variation in flexibility is likely to have pedagogical, administrative, economic and social consequences.
Consequences of flexible curriculum
In terms of learning, theory suggests education becomes more inclusive with curriculum flexibility as students can structure their program in accordance with their personal needs, strengths and interests. This empowers students and can increase their intrinsic motivation to the study. It could also stimulate a deeper understanding of learning and self-reflective cycles of planning change. In practice, however, this freedom increases student anxiety around choosing electives, minors and majors, because students experience pressure to make the right decision in a meritocratic environment without having sufficient self-knowledge. Moreover, research suggests that students choose electives based on short-term perspectives and the estimated level of difficulty to pass the course. In that case, education does not encompass what is best for students but rather what they perceive as best, hence, students do not reach their full potential in the absence of more challenging courses.
But there are also several implications in terms of management and organisation of a flexible curriculum. Electives commonly require the completion of several prerequisite courses. Updating and enforcing these prerequisites further complicates course development, particularly if students from multiple programmes can sign up to the course. Teaching staff may find themselves confronted with a diverse set of procedures, customs and meetings for each of the respective programmes or Faculties that offer the course. For the curriculum as a whole, increased flexibility may also compromise the development of coherent and cohesive teaching as each student is likely to follow a different trajectory. The exposure to a diverse set of teaching styles and conventions can certainly help students’ adaptability; it may also render a disorienting and inconsistent learning experience.
Explanations for flexible curriculum
Many of the possible consequences requires further corroborating evidence. Yet, it also raises questions on the underlying motives that push curricula towards more flexible formats.
The main argument we found in discussions with peers is the marketization of universities. The student becomes a value-seeking customer of knowledge and flexible curricula are part of the HE institution’s business strategy. As students pay for a service, universities offer a customization of their product based on the needs and desires of the customer. It assumes the customer knows best, even if they are pursuing an education.
Other explanations take an organizational perspective and look at curricular reform as a process with vested interests. Faculty members want to retain the courses they have been teaching. If student numbers in a programme drop, they may push to have their course taken up in new or other programmes (if rebranding wouldn’t work). An elective system can thus offer a solution, but it also makes student numbers highly volatile. Similarly, the creation of new programmes in response to market pressures can take place without expanding the faculty if one can repackage existing (elective) courses.
The literature on the topic is relatively scarce, and often dependent on anecdotal evidence. This is the reason why most of this post has been written in a conditional tense. There is clearly a lot to be studied, which drove us to construct a comprehensive comparative database on Political Science programs over the last years to facilitate these efforts. In case anyone is interested, do reach out!