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Liberal Arts in the UK

 

Liberal Arts in the UK panel

Panel members from left to right:
Dr Volker Balli (Leuphana Universität, Lüneburg, Germany), Dr Erika Balsom (King’s College, London), panel moderator Dr Theron Schmidt (King’s College, London), Fr Feidhlimidh Magennis (St Mary's University College, Belfast), Professor Phil Deans (The American International University in London, Richmond), Dr Emily Pillinger (King’s College, London)

 

On 14th October 2014, staff and student representatives participated in a conference hosted by King’s College London to explore the recent emergence of Liberal Arts programmes in UK universities. Fr Feidhlimidh Magennis contributed to a panel discussion on ‘The Liberal Arts in an International Perspective’. A summary is given below:

 

Liberal Arts education is a global phenomenon that takes many forms because it must be implemented in particular and local contexts, so let me begin by describing our circumstances. St Mary’s University College Belfast is an independent Catholic institution founded in 1900 to train teachers for Catholic schools. It was granted the status of University College of Queen’s University Belfast by the Privy Council in 1997 and began to offer a Liberal Arts undergraduate programme in 2000, our centenary year. We have been a specialist institution of teacher education and the Liberal Arts for the past fifteen years.

Our mission statement combines a commitment to excellence in teaching and learning with a strong sense of service to our local community. We seek to express these within a tradition which is Catholic, meaning our programmes aim for the development of the whole person, and we act as part of a global family and tradition. Thus, it was only natural to us, when considering diversification, to look to other parts of the world to assist us in shaping a particular answer to educational needs in Northern Ireland.

We turned both to the Catholic tradition (exemplified in John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University), and to contemporary manifestations of Liberal Arts education in America. We identified the Liberal Arts approach as a way to answer calls within the Dearing Report on higher education in the UK (1997) for broad-based, multi-disciplinary undergraduate programmes. We engaged with the discussions of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) that led to the 2002 report, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, and to the more recent report of the LEAP project (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) in 2007, entitled College Learning for a New Global Century.

These initiatives helped us to rethink the aims and processes of a Liberal Arts programme for the 21st century. It was our strategy to express learning outcomes in terms of skills development and to locate experiential learning at the heart of the Liberal Arts experience. Such a focus integrated effectively with our aim to develop the whole person and not simply to address intellectual excellence. Thus, we are explicit in our attention to skills development when designing modules, and we require all students to undertake work placements in years 2 and 3 of the degree programme.

We established links with Liberal Arts colleges to learn from their practice. Thus we proceeded to establish a Writing Centre at St Mary’s that, in 2004, was recognised as a Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL-NI). Although we use the term “writing centre”, it is really more accurate to speak of a “discourse” centre where we assist students to embrace the key intersection between reading, writing and discussion that is at the core of a Liberal Arts education.

We are actively engaged with Government’s Widening Access Policy to provide high-quality university education to non-traditional students. Encouraged by practices in American colleges, we used the Liberal Arts to implement our strategy. We are located in a city with high levels of social deprivation and a history of conflict and lack of opportunity. We believe that a new form of education is a key element for addressing that challenge, and we have a proven track record of success in that field. Thus, the focus of our Liberal Arts programme does not have the clichéd association with esoteric and cultured discourse in ivy-covered halls. We use the Liberal Arts as the means for engaging students who, typically, do not come from a culture familiar with higher education and intellectual pursuits.

Introducing a Liberal Arts programme in the UK has been a mostly solitary venture to date, with much misunderstanding and scepticism from Government, other HE institutions, schools, parents and prospective students. However, careers officers in the post-primary schools have been an important exception: they see what we have to offer as appropriate to a wide range of their students. Being a Catholic institution gives us a resilience to be a prophetic voice as it gives us the reassurance of being part of a wider community of witnesses: a world-wide Catholic tradition of excellence in education. Situating our proposals within the wider experiences and developments of partner institutions in America has helped us to persuade the doubters. Being able to link up with other developments across Europe, from 1999 onwards, also has been a source of inspiration and strength. We are now playing our part in the establishment of a network of institutions called ECOLAS (The European Consortium of Liberal Arts and Sciences), evidenced by our participation in a conference in Brussels last week.

These networks are by no means restricted to institutions with a faith basis! Faith-based institutions have a natural hinterland in shared values, certainly. However, there is a wider sense to that word ‘catholicity’ inherent in the Liberal Arts phenomenon. In addition to an intellectual search for unity and wholeness in knowledge, a commitment to the whole person and a willingness to promote a values-based education, there is a sense of the universal or the global that rescues us from the enclosing horizons that may be imposed by political structures and educational policy.

We continually ask ourselves: what does an undergraduate—just beginning to accept the value of intellectual pursuits—need to be a vital participant in the challenges of the 21st century? Liberal Arts in the United Kingdom stand on the pinnacle of an exciting new venture. They represent both a challenge and the opportunity for raising standards and widening access to undergraduate life. They also offer the opportunity to shift from a much too narrow focus: on league tables, on the rote memorisation of facts and on a reduced amount of subject material. By working together across institutional, regional and national divides, we aim to model the openness that we seek to instil in our students: namely, the desire for true learning in the broadest sense.