The future higher education supermarket

By Talisha Schilder

“Flexible bachelor”, “tailor your own study programme” and “freedom to pursue your own interests” are examples of how universities promote curriculum flexibility on their websites. Student-customers scroll, or let’s say stroll, through the online syllabus aisles to pick-and-choose courses for their shopping cart curriculum, the tuition fee for which they pay at the university’s cash desk. The clearly defined study programme is no longer the student’s yearly grocery list.

Surely, I am sketching an oversimplified analogy of extreme curriculum flexibility. In reality, Higher Education (HE) curriculums are positioned somewhere around the centre on the flexible-fixed nexus. The central question is not so much whether there should be flexibility, but rather to what extent a curriculum should be flexible.

I started to think about curriculum flexibility as I am currently a research intern in Johan Adriaensen and Patrick Bijsmans’ research project on mapping the degree of flexibility across undergraduate programmes in European Studies, Political Science and International Relations. Not only have scholars such as Gaby Umbach and Bruno Scholl advocated for a “flexible core curriculum” in European Studies, but I have also noticed many course prerequisites such as “complete course X before registering for course Y” in syllabi when coding data. This made me read into why there is a dichotomic tension between flexibility and rigidity in HE curriculum design.

To begin on a positive note, some education innovation reports, such as a 2002 report on the elective versus the prescribed curriculum in the US context and a 1998 report on education and training in the EU,, emphasise that structural curriculum flexibility may enhance the inclusivity of the educational institution as it enables students to adjust the study programme to their individual needs, strengths and interests. Bovil, Bulley and Morss also suggest that student curriculum ownership orchestrates the power of choice by shifting the sentiment from I have to towards I want to; i.e. towards intrinsic motivation. Moreover, they maintain that the continuous self-reflecting cycles of planning and evaluating change contribute to the students’ development of soft skills, core competences and self-knowledge.

However, there are some questions considering the implementation of structural curriculum flexibility. How does one guarantee knowledge and skills development – or any other form of academic growth – of students if courses are not obligatory? Is every undergraduate student really continuously self-reflecting on their personal and professional development? And if they are, would more curriculum responsibility not add to the existing student anxiety regarding, for instance, choosing a major or a study track, as argued by, for instance, Morano and Miltenburg?

After discussing these questions with a few peers, the underlying factor of success appears to be knowing who you are and what you want as a student, which is not innate to everyone. And that is okay.

I started reading and thinking about: what could be the possible role of the universities to facilitate such student awareness? The first option is addressed by, for instance, Jackson, who emphasises the importance of an adequate guidance system by study counsellors that give students enough time and attention to tailor their programmes. The second option emanates from my own work experience as Events Coordinator in ImpactLab UM, a university-funded student organisation that organises weekly workshops to boost students’ employability skills and personal development. The problem is that both options increase the budgetary costs, which would result in higher tuition fees, thereby eliminating the positive inclusivity implication of curriculum flexibility.

But what if we shift our focus from what to how students learn?

I personally study European Studies at Maastricht University in which we use problem-based learning (PBL), which resolves around constructive, collaborative, contextual and self-directed learning. However, there does not have to be a prescribed form or set material to be studied, which, Bijsmans and Versluis argue, allows for flexibility as to what is being discussed without losing sight of a course’s intended learning outcomes. This would allow for a form of student ownership over the curriculum. But when I discussed this with my friends Isabell and David, we bumped into a problem that Bijsmans and Versluis also discuss: namely that without staff and students’ gradual immersion in and proper training of PBL, clearly defined learning goals and prescribed core literature are unavoidable to ensure the quality of discussions and to prevent student anxiety.

Another suggestion might therefore be to allow for less conventional assessment, such as blogs, posters or videos. These enable a degree of student ownership whilst stimulating the creativity and soft skills of students, which are precisely the intended outcomes of structural curriculum flexibility.

So, we find ourselves back to square one, that is, flexible rigidity. This blogpost only reveals a glimpse of the debate around curriculum flexibility. The higher education supermarket scenario is a remote if not unlikely future with the flexible-fixed tension in mind. Nevertheless, the course registration deadline for Period 3 is around the corner and I will soon be clicking electives into the online registration cart again.

About the Author

Talisha Schilder (1998) is a third-year student of the BA in European Studies at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She will graduate in Summer 2021 with a BA thesis on EU trade.