DUB panel sceptical about core curriculum for all students, even if it’s voluntary

Is it a good idea to bring students from different programmes together? Photo: DUB

It sounds like a good idea: all Bachelor’s students at Utrecht University would take a number of courses together, regardless of their study programme, in order to be trained as true academics instead of specialists with tunnel vision. Those courses would include History and Philosophy of Science, or discussions about what different scientific disciplines could accomplish together in the current health and climate crises. Interesting and useful, right?

However, when a ‘core curriculum’ was suggested by the UU Board in its draft Strategic Plan, hell broke loose. Members of the University Council were caught by surprise and wondered whether the Board should tell study programmes how to best serve their students.

After the criticism, the Board took a few steps back, saying that the ‘core curriculum’ isn’t supposed to be mandatory. But this U-turn doesn’t mean that the idea is off the table entirely, as UU graduates often say they wish there was something in their programme that would have allowed them to look beyond the confines of their own field.

The Strategic Plan that was approved by the University Council on Monday now says that, in the next few years, the university will examine how a core curriculum could be implemented. We were curious about what our DUB panel thinks of university-wide curriculum. Should UU make it mandatory or elective? What courses should be included? And what courses should make way for this curriculum?

Frank van Rijnsoever, Professor of Innovation Sciences: 
‘If you make this mandatory, you’ll get huge classrooms with lots of students who don’t want to be there’

“Whether a core curriculum is a good idea depends on how these mandatory courses would fit with the rest of the curriculum. The major in the Bachelor’s programme is already relatively small, so you don’t want to mess with that. That means those courses should go in the space for free electives.

“There’s also the question of what to put in a core curriculum. I can imagine that there’s something to be said for each discipline. One may call for sustainability, the other for ethics, or citizenship etc. They’re all valid topics, but is it possible to teach all of them with enough depth?

“Furthermore, it might just be the case that not all students are motivated to take these courses. After all, they’ve chosen a specific study programme. If we made these courses mandatory, we’d get huge classrooms with lots of students who don’t want to be there. I doubt whether this would lead to high-quality education. I personally would call for a model that’s based on voluntary participation.”

Chemistry student Eva Klaver:
‘Students should be able to develop themselves in a way they find interesting’

“A core curriculum that’s mandatory or that’s done at the expense of the major doesn’t seem desirable to me. But the free electives the UU is known for could definitely be improved with some good, interdisciplinary courses.

“I also think there’s potential in interdisciplinary minors with an assortment of courses students would be able to choose from. After all, they should develop themselves in a way which they find interesting. One thing that could be interesting is a course in which societal challenges are analysed from the viewpoint of different disciplines in a non-political way.”

Ingrid Weerts, Master’s student of Media and Technology in Leiden, taking electives at the UU:
‘My curriculum is mine’

“Coming up with the idea of a core curriculum and then trying to figure out where to put it is doing things backwards. It makes a lot more sense to decide that some knowledge is fundamental and therefore belongs in everyone’s curriculum. I do think that such knowledge exists: one shouldn’t be able to graduate without learning some basic research and writing skills, for example.

“But why make these courses mandatory? Let’s have some faith in the assumption that our programmes are based on what knowledge is necessary for the students. Stop with the top-down approach, and let programmes and students be free. The more room for electives, the better and more personal a curriculum can be.

“If common courses are to be introduced, then I think they should be interdisciplinary and with multiple themes, and each student should be expected to take at least one. But don’t make it mandatory. My curriculum is mine! Students are adults who can deal with the responsibility of making their own choices.”

Floris van den Berg, Professor of Philosophy:
‘All students should know what the ecological crisis is and what we can do about it’

“I see potential in the idea of a core curriculum and I’ve got a proposal for it. We’re living in an ecological crisis, which can potentially lead to the collapse of the Earth’s carrying capacity. We’re on the Titanic, moving straight toward the iceberg. We humans should do everything we can to avert a radical shift of the global ecosystem, of which climate change is just one aspect. This issue affects us all, whether we want it or not. If the UU says sustainability is at the heart of the university, then the ecological crisis and the available options to address it should be known by all students. UU students or staff members shouldn’t be sceptical about climate change or the severity of environmental issues.”

Fred Toppen, Professor of Social Geography & Planning:
‘Not as part of the major, please’

“If the core curriculum would be limited to, say, two courses, I wouldn’t mind it. Courses about philosophy of science, or a multidisciplinary project, would be nice additions to make programmes broader. But I fear the word curriculum implies more, and that it would happen at the expense of the programmes’ contents.

“Before you go broad, you need to have at least sufficient depth and knowledge in your own discipline, so you know what you can contribute from your own discipline. That means this core curriculum shouldn’t be done too early on in the Bachelor’s programmes. And, please, do it ‘at the expense’ of the free electives, not as part of the major.”

Eise Nota, Master’s student of Earth Surface & Water:
‘The core curriculum seems like a bad administrative prestige project’

“A university-wide core curriculum is unnecessary and ridiculous. The university already has countless excellent options for interdisciplinarity – think of Honours, minors, or the entire Liberal Arts & Sciences programme. Personally, I did a broad UU Bachelor’s programme where I could choose numerous directions and disciplines. At the same time, I had a number of mandatory courses to acquire necessary knowledge and skills. There wouldn’t be room for a core curriculum.

“Besides, how could fifty Bachelor’s programmes, spread across seven faculties, possibly establish a good interdisciplinary programme for all UU students without doing it at the expense of the programme they chose? The core curriculum seems like a bad administrative prestige project which would only lead to the conclusion that it was a waste of money.”

Joris Graff, alumnus of Artificial Intelligence:
‘Multidisciplinary is not the same as general’

“Of course it’s important to make multidisciplinary connections within Bachelor’s education, but it’s a misconception that ‘multidisciplinary’ equals ‘general’. There are, in fact, specific issues where disciplines can learn from each other. Economics students, for instance, can benefit from learning about philosophical perspectives on possession and labour, whereas computer science students could learn more from philosophical discussions about technology and autonomy.

“If you were to jam together all these things in one single course for all students, you’d probably end up with a general overview of social philosophy, in which specific themes would be lost. Multidisciplinary education is better off shaped in specific collaborations between disciplines – which already happens in courses like ‘ethics and public policy’ or ‘philosophy of artificial intelligence’. But what programme would have the motivation to invest in that when there’s a core curriculum that demands all the attention and electives that are reserved for multidisciplinarity?”

Inge Vliek, student of Media & Culture:
‘It’s good to keep students’ freedom of choice’

“The intention behind the idea of a core curriculum is good: bringing together students from different faculties in a number of core courses that are important for everyone. Still, a core curriculum should not be mandatory. That’s because it would happen at the expense of courses that are crucial to study programmes.

“In addition, it’s good to keep as much freedom of choice at the university as possible. This could be achieved with a core curriculum that students can choose themselves, which would discuss relevant themes like climate change, inequality, and racism.”

Bart Mijland, internship coordinator at the Faculty of Humanities:
‘What do you get rid of to make this possible?’

“A core curriculum sounds interesting. The sciences have given us so much, but it’s also fragmented our thinking. We need connections, especially in times of climate change, Corona, terrorism, fake news, and other threats to democracy. However, we should think about what a core curriculum would mean to the workload of the teachers, which is already high. Besides, what do you have to get rid of to make this possible?

“At the same time, I do see the need students have to connect their studies to the labour market. How do you become an entrepreneur? How do you apply academic knowledge in practice? How do you write for a broad audience? At Humanities, we’re offering all sorts of options to meet this demand: events, a podcast, training sessions. Students are supposed to carry out these activities in their free time, which is challenging to do next to sports, a social life, part-time jobs and a pandemic. So, can this be included in the curriculum, too?”

Casper Hulshof, teacher of Educational Sciences:
‘The UU is already the best ‘broad’ university’

“There are enough options already in the current educational model for broader and more in-depth education. Think of electives and the minor, for instance. Utrecht University is already the ‘best’ broad university anyway, according to Elsevier. I wouldn’t have any clue which courses should be included in a core curriculum. Statistics? Perhaps a writing course? Programming could be interesting (but it should be Java, then, because it needs to be a widely-applicable programming language, of course).”

Analyst Mies van Steenbergen:
‘You choose a Sciences programme to get rid of the Humanities courses’

“Natural science people are natural science people, humanities people are humanities people. You choose a sciences programme to get rid of the humanities courses. I only got good grades when I was allowed to do the things I liked only, the things I was good at. In my view, we shouldn’t bother with a core curriculum now.”