• Towards a curriculum taxonomy for liberal arts degrees

    Deanne Gannaway
    University of Queensland

    Research seminar

    Themes: the student experience and learning, lifelong learning, employability, skills development

    Monday 1 September 2008, 15.45-16.45 in Penthouse B

    The Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree is arguably one of the longest established and largest degree programs in the Australian higher education system (Pascoe, McIntyre, Ainley, & Williamson, 2003). Society and culture related programs, of which BA and related programs constitute a large majority, attracted 216,200 students in 2006  - the second highest area of study in the country (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008). Traditionally, the BA program is a liberal arts degree considered the first step in the lifelong journey of learning and is frequently market as such.

    Yet the relevance and the value of the degree are frequently called into question by students, prospective employers and by university administration to the extent that one university, the Queensland University of Technology,  recently announced the closure of the BA and Bachelor of Social Sciences degree programs in 2007 (The Australian, May 2007). Falling student demand, and high costs and attrition rates were cited as reasons for the closure, in contrast to vocations based studies into which humanities and social science subjects are embedded.

    This paper reports the findings from a national scoping project funded by the Carrick Institute of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education that focused on the Australian BA degree program. The project seeks to identify the nature and roles of the modern Australian degree in contemporary society. The study examined BA and related programs on offer at 40 Australian universities between 2001 and 2006. The phase of the project described in this paper involved a detailed examination of course structures, institutional curriculum reviews, marketing and study guide materials; analysis of quantitative data collected by government agencies; interviews with program directors and coordinators, faculty administrators and teaching academics; and online surveys of academic staff.

    A key finding from this project has been that there is a lack of a framework to facilitate a common understanding of the purpose and intentions of the BA degrees.  The scoping study found that many academics cited administrative or market-based reasons for the development of the structure of the degree program rather clear pedagogical intention. Academics reported a desire to support students in acquiring the skills and confidence to navigate through the “supercomplexity” (Barnett, 2004) of their chosen career paths and their studies, but there was little evidence of a curriculum designed to support this desire. In fact, in some instances the BA curricula appears to be adding to the complexity to the point of turning away the very students they aim to attract.

    An outcome of the scoping study has been the development of curriculum taxonomy that describes the curricula currently used in Australian BA degree programs. This taxonomy can be used to develop a common curriculum framework on a program level to facilitate discussions regarding program relevance, value, purpose and intention. This framework can then be used as a basis of discussion within institutions and when engaging with students, administration and industry.