The years young people spend in higher education are the most formative. Students mature as they prepare for their futures. A wise choice for a degree programme is a great start – but not all universities structure their degree programmes in the same way.

Some young people know their choice of a degree and possibly even have a preferred university. They have an idea of a career path, be it journalism or law, only to find out once they are enrolled, that studying for a particular profession is not quite what they want.

Rhodes University offers a general formative degree, which frees you from vocational lock-in and offers you a wider choice.

When other universities reconfigured their curricula in the early 2000’s, to focus on qualifications that prepared students for particular jobs, Rhodes University chose not to, explains Professor Chrissie Boughey of the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning.

‘Our formative degree requires students to engage with a range of subjects at first-year level and offers specialisation as students move up the academic ladder. The flexibility we offer is a great strength.’

In her 2018 paper “Using the curriculum to enhance teaching and learning”, Boughey draws on a wealth of research to challenge the thinking that has influenced curriculum reform in South Africa over the past 20 years.

‘Arguably, many of the jobs for which students have been trained in narrow vocational programmes will cease to exist before the end of their working lives,’ she says. ‘With a formative degree, students will have the knowledge to imagine worlds that do not yet exist.’

The focus of a formative degree is to equip students to use theory to “see the world differently” and develop their ability to make evidence-based arguments. That is the Rhodes University graduates’ trait.

A recent study entitled “Going to University: The influence of higher education on the lives of young South Africans”, that examined students’ experiences in BA and BSc degree programmes, shows that flexibility in the curriculum structure plays a crucial role in students’ progression and success. The study tracked the lives of young people as they made their way through the university and out into the world of work.

‘A curriculum needs to make some trial and error possible. Professional degrees such as medicine or engineering may need a more specified curriculum, but the relative flexibility in the formative BA and BSc degrees is important. This allows students to try out different disciplines and find their passions,’ explains Professor Sioux Mckenna, a co-author of the study.

Affirmed, once more, by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) as the best research institution per capita in South Africa, and with among the best throughput rates in the country, Rhodes University looks to the future with confidence. Walk with us, where leaders learn.

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