Head to Head: Should students have mandatory subjects outside their majors?

Should students have mandatory subjects outside their majors?

Yes by Garrett Kennedy

There are two reasons people normally give for why a university education is valuable. One is that it is a means to a better career. The other is roughly that knowledge is valuable for its own sake, and society is better off when many of its citizens are well educated. This policy would increase the value of students’ degrees under both views.

One of the problems I have encountered thus far in writing this piece is that the extent of this policy is a bit unclear. I think it is probably fair to think of it as being as small an encroachment on UCD’s current elective system as possible. UCD would keep the current system of most students doing two elective classes a year. The only difference would be that students would be required to use some/all of those electives in certain areas such as social sciences, languages, or science. This is pretty common in American universities.

With that clarified, it’s worth actually getting onto the argument. Why is it good for students to have to take modules outside of their normal interests?

Beginning with employability, it seems reasonably intuitive why knowing more, about more things, is probably good for your jobs. Despite this, many degrees are narrow and many students emerge from their degrees having already specialised significantly.

This is less problematic in degrees with clearer career paths like engineering or medicine. Regardless, the traditional path from a degree into a job for life is becoming less and less common. Far more people than ever before are jumping between different jobs as their career progresses. In such a world, having a more flexible skill set would clearly be useful.

Even for students targeting specialised career paths, having a broader skill set is clearly useful. An engineering student has lots to gain from a history or economics elective even if their career goal is simply to design bridges. This is because these modules offer skills one simply does not generally acquire from an engineering degree.

An engineering degree can obviously offer one the technical expertise to design bridges. However, it offers little in the way of communication skills. These are incredibly useful in terms of managing other employees or engaging with clients. A social science module or two can make a significant difference on this front.

The benefits are clearer again when it comes to language electives. Language skills are useful in acquiring jobs. Furthermore, a large part of language electives typically involves learning about the culture as well as the language. This again, shows that this policy would help students think about the world, through ways in which their normal degree may not allow them to.

All of this is before we even get onto the societal benefits. It almost seems a cliché at this point but there are many advantages to people having a better and broader understanding of the world around them. This is most clear when it comes to the social sciences. It seems quite intuitive that if students have a basic understanding of economics or the Irish political system it will make them more fully informed and therefore, better citizens.

There is obviously a trade-off between students taking these modules and taking a few extra modules in their subject of choice. However, given this would only be a module or two a year it seems like a reasonably small deal. An engineering student can still do forty engineering modules in their four year course. The difference in expertise they would have gotten if they had studied a few extra seems reasonably insignificant.

Conversely, the marginal benefit of taking one or two social science modules seems extremely significant. This is because in the status quo, many non-arts students simply will not go near a module that requires essays. It is only by forcing students to take these classes that the benefits of them can be fully realised.

Interestingly, this policy actually seems more reasonable in Ireland than it would be in the US, despite it being the norm there rather than here. This is because of the difference in how much students have to pay to get their degrees. When students are graduating with several tens of grand of debt it seems quite unfair to implement such strict rules on what they have to study. However, when the government is paying for the majority of students’ degrees it seems much more reasonable for them to ensure that students graduate with as many skills that are going to benefit society as possible.

NO by Isabella Ambrosio

For twelve years, a majority of students were told where to sit, when to speak and what to study. This tends to develop large amounts of resentment towards the education system and boredom with the material being forced into their brains. This was especially prevalent when surveying secondary school dropouts, where a study found 47% of the students dropped out because they were bored. People choose to apply to college, so why would they choose to apply to college just to be told what they should be studying? They will most likely just end up dropping out because they were bored with the mandatory material once again.

Being forced to take statistics is so unbelievably unappealing for many English students that it might force them to look elsewhere for their English degree. Just because UCD would have mandatory subjects does not mean that other universities in Ireland, or anywhere in the world, would. There are little to no universities in Ireland alone that have mandatory classes outside of the major. This would push away Irish students.

Students in universities in America have required classes and may be looking at Ireland as a way to avoid those mandatory requirements. If mandatory classes were to be implemented, American students might prefer to go elsewhere because their needs are not being met. This decision would ultimately push students away from UCD. This means they will miss all of the quality education they would have received otherwise.

If UCD wanted to implement mandatory classes, more Irish universities would have to engage in this movement. Otherwise this might make UCD stand out in all the wrong ways. Even if all universities started to implement mandatory classes, university in general might lose even more appeal.

Most students wish to attend college in order to focus or narrow their specialities based on the majors provided. An influx in classes that wouldn’t contribute to that speciality, or even be added onto the 5 to 7 classes a student is required to take each semester, might not suit an individual. The choice of education and customisation in order to achieve the desired specialty is one of the main draws to a university. Removing that could easily push a student away from applying to school.

Electives are already a requirement and give the student flexibility if they wish to study outside of their subject. Electives are classes that exist outside of the major but can be taken for credits. This already allows any students who wish to take classes outside of their major, so why force students who don’t wish to? Why force students who don’t wish to explore outside of their major to take classes that wouldn’t suit or benefit them and therefore waste time and resources? If forced to take courses outside of their major, it could cause further frustration or resentment towards a student’s education. They might start skipping lectures or not attending tutorials because they simply aren’t interested in the material. This will lead to failing modules and an endless cycle of failing and repeating. Students forced to take modules take up spaces for students who are taking modules for their major, therefore wasting time and resources. This also leads back to the statistic of secondary school dropouts mentioned previously, with the risk of the same happening in universities. Forcing students to take specific modules might lead to boredom, and then lead to dropping out.

Because UCD already allows students to take electives and because of the lack of customisation and the boredom that will come with that, adding mandatory classes would negatively impact UCD students. There would most definitely be students that would not apply to UCD because of the mandatory subjects. Whatever the specific reason for their dissatisfaction with the policy, that is inherently negative. It does not only impact the university, it impacts the student who may apply elsewhere, but not receive the same high standard of education that they would at UCD. I know I would not want to take a stats class as an English major - maybe if mandatory classes were required when I was considering applying, I would have applied to another school.

Rebuttal by Garrett Kennedy

It is true that there is a trade-off between students studying the subjects came to university to specifically study and studying these mandatory classes. However, the extent of this trade-off seems exaggerated. Losing out on a few extra option modules does not massively affect a student’s engagement with their major.

Conversely, significant benefits can be gained from studying a subject or two outside of that major. Those benefits will never exist to the same extent if those subjects are not mandatory because so many students simply will not take them.

The idea that students will simply not go to college or will choose different colleges may be true but seems limited. Most students choose their university for a wide variety of reasons. Being able to study their chosen subject is only one among many. Similarly, students already have to study a variety of core modules which are often quite dull. We make students take these because we consider the content of these modules important enough. I think it is similarly important that everyone have a basic understanding of history, economics, and linguistic ability.

Furthermore, many students are not entirely sure what they want to study when they get to college. Being forced to study a wider variety of subjects will surely help these students figure out if they made the correct choice.

Rebuttal by Isabella Ambrosio

There is something to be said about having an increased level of societal skills when taking classes outside of your course. But, UCD already offers employability classes for undergraduates. These classes help develop a range of skills for the workplace and developing a standout CV and cover letter. It also assists in interview techniques. While it isn’t necessarily the same as having a wide-range of surface level knowledge, it does tick the boxes of what employers are looking for and will increase the likelihood of being employed after college. This is an option for students, but perhaps should be made mandatory. This would remove the need to have mandatory classes in science, history or languages, without fully depriving a student of employable qualities that would be attributed to background knowledge. It would aid in an engineering student being able to communicate in the workplace, or an arts student being able to analyse data better. This is an option, and forcing students to take mandatory classes would be a waste of resources as these classes are already available to them.