Have you always regretted not furthering your education but think that it’s “too late” or feel that you cannot commit to a university course? Is there a subject you wish to study purely for the joy of it? Josanne Cassar interviews Dr Jean Paul De Lucca, Director of the Centre of Liberal Arts and Sciences about a new initiative which will allow more flexibility for those who wish to pursue their studies at their own pace
What made you decide to set up this new initiative? Did you have a demand from the public or did you yourself see there was a niche to be filled?
The idea was first mooted a couple of years ago by the Rector, Prof. Juanito Camilleri. The University is particularly keen on offering an opportunity to persons who, for some reason or other, did not have the opportunity of pursuing tertiary education. It was also mindful of the fact that due to work-related and other commitments, many people cannot commit themselves to, say, three or five years of full-time or part-time study in the traditional format. Added to this, there are people who might not wish to pursue a diploma or a degree but would like to take specific courses depending on their interests and time. We’re also thinking of university graduates who specialised in particular areas but would like to return to study other subjects at university level without necessarily seeking to specialise in a particular area. Here too, a flexible route which would allow students to choose their own courses and study at their own pace might provide an attractive alternative to the traditional model of university courses. These are some of the considerations which led the University to embark on this new initiative. The Programme in the Liberal Arts and Sciences (PLAS) is intended to cater especially (though not exclusively) for the needs of such persons, by offering an alternative path to university education based on the principles of quality, flexibility and opportunity.
In February 2014, the Council of the University set up the Centre for the Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), with its main mandate being that of administering and coordinating the new Programme.
Can you please explain exactly how it will work, i.e. anyone can just apply for any course etc?
PLAS is an innovative programme because students get to shape their own programme of studies from the range of units offered. The ‘bite-size’ approach provides maximum flexibility in terms of attendance. The Programme will offer around twenty units each semester (Semester 1: October-January; Semester 2: February-May). Each unit has a value of 4 or 8 ECTS credits, which translate into approximately 28 and 56 hours of lectures/seminars respectively, spread over 12 to 14 weeks. Upon the successful completion of each unit, the student is given a ‘Certificate of Achievement’. Students will not register for a ‘Certificate’, ‘Diploma’, ‘Higher Diploma’ or ‘Degree’ course (as happens with other programmes of study) but for individual units. A student may wish to take just one or two units. However, if one accumulates a 30 ECTS credits, s/he will be awarded a University Certificate in Liberal Studies. A Diploma in Liberal Studies will be awarded after the successful completion of 60 ECTS credits, a Higher Diploma in Liberal Studies after completing 120 ECTS credits, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Studies upon the completion of 180 ECTS credits. There are no limits of time.
Will this place a further workload on academic staff or will these new students/courses simply fit in within the existing courses available?
The current list of PLAS units (available on the website) includes 65 units covering a broad range of areas. Others will be added in due course. All PLAS units have been designed as ‘stand-alone’ units specifically for this Programme, bearing in mind the background of potential students. PLAS units are not part of any other course or programme of studies currently being offered by the University. Units will be taught by Resident Academics of the University, most of whom are recognised as leading scholars in their respective fields. In some cases we have also engaged specialists from outside academia to contribute to PLAS. Each unit has gone through the normal quality assurance process and approved by the Senate of the University.
Will their assessment be the same as anyone reading for a degree, i.e. will they be graded differently?
In terms of quality, PLAS units are on the same level as those offered in other undergraduate programmes and the grading will be commensurate with the level normally expected in such programmes. However, given the specific nature of our Programme, we have decided that the methods of assessment should not include written examinations. Students will be assessed on the basis of coursework, assignments, group work and so on.
What will be the benefits for members of the public with the introduction of this scheme? Are there any age limits?
Following on the long tradition of a ‘liberal education’, PLAS aims at offering an opportunity for personal growth as well as professional development. One might be interested in following certain courses purely for the joy of learning and for one’s own personal enhancement. I believe very strongly that this aspect of education should be valued rather than overlooked. However, this Programme also offers an opportunity for the acquisition of transferable skills which could be put to good use in a work environment and in the context of job progression. For instance, PLAS offers an excellent opportunity to anyone thinking of changing job. Having some background in certain areas (without the need for a degree in those specific areas) might place one in a better position when applying for certain jobs.
There are no age limits for applying for PLAS units.
How does one qualify to enter the course (will it be the same as for mature students,i.e via an interview or do they have to have a minimum level of qualifications?)
The Programme Regulations state that “Units in the Programme are open to persons who are deemed to have the ability to follow such Units with profit. Acceptance may be subject to a short interview. Certain qualifications and/or experience may be specified for particular Units.”
Some might argue that by allowing people to do the course work at their own pace, this scheme might “dilute” the value of obtaining a diploma/degree etc. What would you say to this argument?
I would see it the other way round. There are many people who might not be able to commit themselves to specific timeframes but who still have a high degree of motivation to learn and study. Rather than ignore them, the University, through PLAS, is now providing them with an opportunity through this flexible route. As I already said, the value in terms of the quality of each unit – and therefore of any award (certificate, diploma, higher diploma or degree) – is guaranteed at the same level of other undergraduate units. PLAS ‘simply’ offers the added value of flexibility. The ‘simply’ can be a great and much-needed opportunity for the people we have in mind.
What other benefits can be obtained from PLAS?
Some people might find the prospect of starting, or returning to, university studies at an older age quite daunting. One of the main aims of the Centre for the Liberal Arts and Sciences is to provide learner-focused administrative assistance to students enrolled in the Programme. It will serve as a ‘one-stop shop’ that caters for students’ needs and our staff is particularly sensitive to the needs of adult and returning learners. Prospective and registered students can count on our help and assistance whenever needed.
The days and times of lectures/seminars will be indicated on the online application form – which will be available later in May. Lectures/seminars will normally take place between 6:00pm and 8:00pm at the Main Campus (Msida) or the Valletta Campus.
For more information visit http://www.um.edu.mt/clas