Is the Bachelor’s degree fit for purpose in the twenty-first century? That may seem like a radical question but the three-year degree course has changed comparatively little in comparison with most other forms of education.

Students in British primary and secondary schools would recognise very little from their own experiences if they were to step into a classroom from fifty or a hundred years ago. The rows of desks and rote learning they’d encounter would be a world away from their own experiences.

But send one of today’s university students back fifty or a hundred years, and they’d see rather more that was familiar to them. Subject specialisation from the start of the degree? Check. Classes delivered in lecture theatres with minimal interaction? Check. Courses that emphasise disciplinary knowledges and gesture only minimally to the world of the university campus? Check and double-check.

But as the Times Higher reports from the MENA Universities Summit in Jeddah, time may be running out for universities that want to continue to take the slow road towards innovation and change. At the summit, representatives universities from all over the world discussed their strategies for innovation and student-centred learning.

A key theme was that “disciplinary excellence” is “simply not enough” for graduates to excel in the contemporary job marketplace. Teaching creativity and innovation, and diversifying the curriculum, remain urgent priorities for universities looking to evolve to meet the new challenges facing them.

British universities and subject specialisation

One of the key points raised by several representatives of innovative universities related to a topic that is particularly relevant to UK universities – subject specialisation. Students at most Western universities eventually declare a “major” – the subject area, such as Mathematics or English Literature, that will appear at the top of their degree certificate.

But degree courses in North America usually require at least one year studying a broad range of subjects at university level. Just because you’re doing a History degree, that doesn’t mean you can get through your degree without taking any modules in the sciences. And vice versa! By contrast, three-year degrees in the UK normally specialise from the outset.

In your first year you may be offered the opportunity to take one or two “electives” outside of your subject area. But you’re rarely required to do so, and sometimes you may have to take all your modules in your home department. This offers little exposure to alternative ways of thinking, modelling, or problem-solving, and leaves UK graduates quite poorly rounded compared to their North American counterparts.

In Scotland, things are a bit different. Universities such as Edinburgh take pride in giving their students a diverse education by using the first year of a four-year degree programme to establish a broad base. But many university students in England and Wales graduate without ever pursuing higher study outside of their home discipline.

Innovation = diversification

British universities’ insistence on specialisation seem all the more incongruous given that, at the Jeddah summit, the most creative ideas focused on how to make the curriculum more diverse and less specialised. Is South Korea’s Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology a model for the future? Its students don’t declare majors and the institution itself has no departments. Students study humanities, social sciences, science, engineering, and computing. And as if that wasn’t varied enough they also learn both a musical instrument and a martial art for at least a year of their studies!

Some creative minds at the University of Michigan, meanwhile, have come up with a different way to solve the problem of specialisation. What if you’ve specialised in a given area but find the jobs you expected to find in that area simply aren’t available? No problem! Take one or more “post-graduation micro-certificates” – shortened courses in subjects that weren’t part of a student’s degree but leverage the study skills they’ve developed.

These examples demonstrate some of the ways in which universities can shift their models to accommodate the lifelong learning needs of students for whom breadth of knowledge, rather than just depth, is key to a successful future. The signs are that UK institutions will need to let go their attachment to subject specialisation and deep disciplinary knowledge if they’re going to keep up.