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A call to service – new ways of looking at degree education.

Stuart Middleton


5 April 2010

            Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.


 I have spent a few days at Brigham Young University in Hawai’i and have been greatly impressed by two characteristics of their programmes, something they have in common with most of their USA tertiary sibling tertiary institutions – service education and general education.

Service used to be at the heart of New Zealand society – in fact retirement was looked forward to as an opportunity to have the time to contribute more widely to the community. Knighthoods and Damehoods would be conferred largely on the basis of service rather than simply being good at your job – you had to have gone that extra mile, done that little bit more for the community.

Many schools have motto’s that reflect this and there was an emphasis on helping others. Service Clubs were based on that very premise – Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Jaycees and so on. They all struggle for membership these days. Service seems no longer to be part of the value set that we aspire to or which education seeks to promote.

How do the US colleges achieve this? Well in its simplest form they employ students and in large numbers. BYU Hawai’i employs 700 students out of a total student population of fewer than 3,000. They have the Polynesian Cultural Centre which is a large focus and many students actually get the assistance to attend the university through the support of a scholarship for which in return they commit to helping keep this magnificent cultural centre going. In addition to learning and practising the ethics of work they also have the opportunity to promote their respective cultures – hence service education, a mix of the two.

Around the institution opportunity is sought to employ students in other service employment opportunities. This is easier in the residential environment typical of US institutions but they also employ students in the departments helping to support teaching staff, in reception duties, around the institution in technical positions, keeping certain facilities (e.g. the auditorium) functioning and so on.

The unions might have a view of this but it seems to me that it is a much healthier institution because of it. Commitment to an institution should not all be about take but also about give, not only about a one-way transaction but about a two-way relationship. And it happens because the institution sees a value in it.

Even without the impact of residential aspects that we typically do not have in New Zealand, there is still a greatly increased opportunity to provide a service education opportunity to many more students than the handfuls currently employed. But first we have to believe in service and then commit to putting in place and education programme that provides the opportunities.

Perhaps it is all related to the continuing commitment in universities in the US to the notion of General Education. The sophomore and freshman years are generally focussed on such a general education in the move towards declaring your major that will occupy you in the junior and senior years.

At BYU Hawai’i the general education curriculum covered four areas. Basic Skills required one course in a “fundamental math requirement” and then courses in further maths, language, reading/writing/speaking and health/physical education. These were supplemented by electives in student life and computer skills.

Fundamental Knowledge roamed over ideas and philosophical underpinnings of civilisation and covered literary and artistic expression and an introduction to the natural world (biological science, physical science and the human environment. Finally there were the survey courses that covered, under the heading of Synthesis, the history of civilisation, advanced writing and interdisciplinary studies.

An interesting footnote declares that “Students will choose from a variety of courses which transcend the artificial divisions of scholarly disciplines. These courses will frequently be team taught, using the expertise and resources of several academic areas.

The two thrusts – service education and general education – give a powerful message that coming to university is about something greater than getting a meal ticket – that is the role of the polytechnic in our education system. First degrees in a university should provide a wide basis of thinking and a foundation of advanced academic skill that lead to expression in a variety of different areas, But the narrow focus of senior school academic curriculum – a handful of academic disciplines – combines with the limited and restrictive general education opportunities in some universities to give a vocational focus that abrogates the origins and traditions of a university education.

And perhaps this shows finally in the increased selfishness of society.

US universities have a four year degree and perhaps this provides the space. Is it time for New Zealand universities to consider a move to a longer first degree in order to introduce a general education component.

In an interesting comment posted on this site a few weeks ago by Phil Ker, the suggestion was made that “perhaps we could look at another “taken for granted” here in NZ – our belief that students should study for approx 26 weeks of the year ( most universities) or 34 weeks of the year ( most polytechnics). As a consequence, students typically amble through a degree in three years, and a diploma in two. The alternative – treat study a little more like work and have degrees completed in two years and diplomas in eighteen months. The net result would be less student debt, less paid out in allowances, tertiary teaching infrastructure operating 47/48 weeks of the year, lower value of earnings foregone whilst studying, fewer people contesting scarce jobs in the holiday periods ( students would need to take a holiday), and arguably better qualification completions.”

So perhaps we could see a scenario develop in which polytechnics with their clear vocational focus managing their degrees in two years within an elongated teaching year while universities, taking up the challenge of a first degree characterised by service and general education moving to a four year degree. Picking up the transfer tradition of the US, in some instances and areas, the first two years of a university degree could be undertaken in a polytechnic acting in much the same way as a US community college.

Now, would that be the best of both worlds?

Published inEducation


  1. Glenn Nicholson Glenn Nicholson

    It is heartening to hear that many US universities have made service education and general education an inherent part of their degree programmes and I would agree that New Zealand universities should be looking to include similar knowledge into their programmes. My guess is that the assumption is that this has been delivered to students at secondary school. But why limit this to universities? For many students doing polytechnic diplomas or degrees and having gained their ‘meal ticket’, this will be their only exposure to tertiary education. Perhaps polytechnic degrees could continue to be a 3 year programme, but use the additional teaching and learning time suggested by Phil Ker to include service and general education into their programmes.

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