History department should acknowledge its faults

Jemma Green on history module choices

If university students were asked to compare their school life with that of university, it would be my guess that university would come out on top for a number of reasons. Words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ would certainly be a consideration for me, but another important contrast would be ‘choice’. Distant memories of compulsory Maths, completely unsuited to my strengths and interests, sit heavily on my mind, as does the weekly humiliation of athletics for someone without speed or agility. By comparison, university seemed a liberating opportunity; it provided choice of degree, choice of lifestyle, a wide and varied choice of new friends.

Sadly, it is exactly this notion of choice that is being denied to History students choosing their modules for next year. In previous years, students have numbered their choices in order of preference, from their desired first choice down to the positively unbearable option at the bottom. Whilst a student’s first choice was never guaranteed, especially for the popular modules, there was a sense of logical progression; if a student was denied their first choice, the department would try to offer the second choice and so on. Now, it has been decided to virtually eliminate preference, and students are told to simply tick four unranked modules. It is a strange reality that students would be left with only a 25% chance of getting their favourite topic, and would be in the ridiculous position whereby two students could be allocated each other’s first choice, and be left with their own third of fourth.

As the emails of complaint began to reach the department, the Chair of the Board of Studies was forced to issue an email to explain the reasons for this decision. The email cited the presence of student representatives at the meeting where the decision was proposed, and argued that the large number of students and the complexity of allocation were responsible for the change. The Chair further commented that as a result of this complexity, students were often not being allocated their desired choices under the old system. Judging by the concerned emails sent to the department, it would appear that our student representatives were not performing the role of ‘representing’ especially well, but rather than pass the buck, should the department not be acknowledging its own responsibility to maintain student satisfaction?

It seems illogical that in order to combat student dissatisfaction about module allocation, the department’s answer is to curb student choice. How does this translate into greater satisfaction? Students are left without a sense of control over the degree which they are ultimately paying for, and may well be allocated modules in which they have little interest. The department is risking a lack of motivation as the student voice is drowned out, and this surely does not bode well for results. Rather than taking the easy option, the department should be focusing on why certain modules are oversubscribed and why others receive little enthusiasm. It is a dangerous move for the department, and the university as a whole, to give the impression that it does not care about the concerns of its students.

One comment

  1. In physics, when choosing final year projects, each in a year group of 60 BSc or 40 MPhys students selects their top 6 choices in order of preference from about 60-70 offered projects. Then the module allocator guy plugs all these choices into a computer program (that the guy probably wrote himself) which then spews out the project allocations.

    Perhaps a little swapping of software between depts is all that is required here… but I guess that would require the history dept to get off its arse for students… which (my housemates reliably inform me) is usually cant be bothered to do. artyfarty humanities academics – they’re not really problem solvers are they.

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