Head to Head: Expanding your horizons?

UCD Horizons has been in place for just over five years now, but has this scheme been a success? Barry Singleton and Eoghan Dockrell debate the issue


Horizons is about offering ‘choices rather than constraints’. Choice means freedom. Freedom is fashionable. And the more freedom, the better. But is more choice better? And what is the real choice that Horizons offers?

Given the emphasis that Horizons puts on words like ‘flexible’, ‘freedom’, ‘opportunity’ and ‘diversity’, you would be forgiven for thinking that ‘in the vanguard of [a] leading university’ like UCD, you could study anything and everything you wanted; constructing a custom degree module by module, from all that is to offer in every single school. This of course, is not the case.

Even those behind Horizons recognise that at least some constraint is necessary; they champion ‘choices rather than constraints’ – but only to a point.

So where exactly does that point lie? Some choice is obviously better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that that more choice is better than some choice. We should only have choice to an extent that it is beneficial. I believe that the balance lies in favour of discontinuing the electives programme.

Let us not forget that, electives aside, many students can already choose to pursue particular areas within their core course of study whilst avoiding others. Law students for example, can focus on broadly domestic or international law. And since students presumably choose a course that interests them, they should already find enough on offer.

Electives add over 900 different first-year modules into the mix. Not only does this fail to benefit students, but it also leads to greater dissatisfaction.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz explains how an explosion of choice actually leads to paralysis rather than liberation in his book The Paradox of Choice. With so many electives to choose from, students find it very difficult to choose at all. In fact it’s so hard to choose, many of us just put it on the proverbial long finger. Before you know it, it’s the last day of registration, and with a fine looming over your head for delaying your choice; you just pick ‘something’.

More often than not, that ‘something’ is a safe choice, within your core area of study. It’s interesting to note that ‘[i]n September 2007, some 63 per cent of… first-year students opted [for] electives within their own core study areas’. First years of course, are the least likely to be well informed about Horizons.

If you do manage to pick an elective outside of your core course of study, your problems are only beginning. Because whatever our decision, we end up being less satisfied than if we had fewer options to choose from.

The main reason for this is that with so many options, we feel that one of them has to be perfect. And it’s easy to imagine that if we had made a different choice, it would have been better. The easily imagined alternatives cause us to regret the decision we made, and this detracts from the satisfaction we get from our chosen module, even if picking it was a good decision.

Satisfaction results from a combination of what you expect to get, and what you actually get. Horizons raises expectations. No longer does your degree promise just to be interesting; with Horizons, you should be able to encompass any and every intellectual interest you may have.

Ultimately, it shifts responsibility for structuring a valuable and interesting degree from UCD onto you. So when students inevitably experience dissatisfaction, they feel the blame lies squarely with them.

But what is the real choice that Horizons offers students? How UCD rewards those choices seems to fit badly with what they say they want to encourage.

There can be significant disparity in the difficulty of modules, both within courses and across courses. And yet they all contribute equally to a student’s GPA. Given this, the choice students face is not: ‘Which module interests me the most?’ but: ‘Should I boost my GPA and risk diluting my degree, or maintain its purity and make my study more difficult?’

Is this a fair assessment? Consider what the UCD Fellows in Teaching & Academic Development have to say: “It may be tempting to take a series of modules which you expect to be ‘easy options’, but you’re likely to benefit little from such modules.” Unless, of course, you consider a higher GPA a benefit.

If you’re still not convinced, the UCD Fellows go on to warn students that “every module for which you’ve enrolled will ultimately appear on your transcript” and that we “can expect prospective employers to look for ‘added value’ in […] choice of electives”.

I have to ask: what does a GPA become if it ceases to be a reliable indicator of the quality of a degree?

Considering the work required in choosing an elective – reviewing the many options, seeing which one fits with a timetable, considering the ‘added value’ – is it any wonder, that after this arduous process, students go for ‘easy’ options?

A rock or a hard place? I’d rather avoid the chasm altogether.

Barry Singleton



If you’re reading this article there’s a strong chance you sat the Leaving Certificate. If so, cast your mind back to when you entered fifth year, long before the mocks, graduation, Leaving Cert and [insert memory here]. There, at the beginning, you made a choice. You picked, along with the usual suspects, a number of additional options: most likely a language, a science and two more. You were subsequently stuck with that assortment and a timetable comprising of those subjects for the duration of 5th and 6th year.

The process might not have been clear or explained satisfactorily and, consequently, your choices may have been hastily made, but tough luck. It’s already October and the Principal has finally finalised the timetable so there is no-bloody-way-son you’re moving to Geography. In short, two years of your academic life have been set in stone. You know exactly what’s in store and there’s no dropping or swopping to be had. As for change of mind windows that open and close every semester, well that’s just nonsense.

All of this changes when you come to UCD, where the Horizons programme offers every student the opportunity to pick modules from a pool of hundreds and no student is confined to choosing exclusively from their area of study. Unlike the rigid structure of second level, students now have the flexibility to change the make-up of their transcript at regular intervals throughout their degree.

Horizons is a significant improvement on the traditional third-level format, as students now have the freedom to either stick with subjects from their core discipline, or, for the many who don’t know precisely what career path to walk down, to branch out and sample subjects from other schools. The success of the Horizons programme is proved by statistics that show a large percentage of students choose to engage with Horizons by selecting subjects that are completely different from their core area of study.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that this progressive programme was only introduced as recently as 2005 and is not available in every university. Be grateful that you didn’t end up with your second choice and find yourself enrolled in archaic institutions where restrictive, straitjacket-style education is still practiced.

Horizons has many advantages and for an exhaustive list, I’d direct you to the Horizons page on the UCD website. There you’ll find plenty of compelling arguments in favour of the programme, but I’m going to be selective here by describing my own experience.

In my first semester of first year, I thought I’d take full advantage of the Horizons programme and put bluntly, I overreached by selecting Astronomy and Space Science. I was neither an Astronomer nor a Space Scientist, but a Law student. To cut a long story short, I discovered that my maths had not greatly improved since pass-level Leaving Cert and indeed my hopes of discovering extra-terrestrial life and collecting the Nobel Prize for Physics were dashed. Alas, another victory speech consigned to the dustbin.

But despite my failings, I didn’t lose heart with the Horizons programme and instead selected electives closer to home and kept a safe distance from anything maths/science based. I soon found the lectures I most enjoyed were my electives. They provided a needed break from the monotony of my core course subjects. Furthermore, these history and politics electives are, I believe, eye-catching additions to my transcript, which is effectively part of a CV.

As most courses are quite general on the surface, by choosing electives strategically, students can benefit in an increasingly competitive market environment where employers may be focusing in on specific course choices and trying to differentiate candidates on that basis. That’s why, for example, it is beneficial to study a language through Horizons if you’re planning on being an engineer abroad, or likewise it may be helpful to take US Law modules if you plan on working in the States.

Horizons, in a nutshell, gives you more choice and more control over your degree. College is not like secondary school in the sense that it’s not all about results, but rather greater emphasis is placed on the learning experience along the way.

The Horizons programme is an instrument for ensuring that students have some level of input into what they’re learning. The student who benefits from Horizons is the one who picks a module as he has an interest in pursuing postgraduate studies in that area, or it’s the student who selects a module in order to deepen their knowledge of a particular subject.

Or maybe you selected poster design just to inject some life into your GPA. Whatever the reason, you should support the Horizons programme as it benefits many students in a multitude of ways.

Eoghan Dockrell