Facts & Fables about the preparation of Liberal Arts education for master’s education

Liberal Arts education equally good basis for specialization in master's education as a regular bachelor

Too broad, too vague, too little disciplinary depth – these arguments are often used by critics when talking about Liberal Arts Education (LAE). Especially the question to what extent the broadly educated LAE bachelor students are sufficiently prepared for specialisation in master’s education is a recurring topic of discussion. Research by PhD candidate Milan Kovačević of University College Maastricht (UCM) shows that there is no evidence of such academic shortcomings among LAE students. On the contrary, LAE students are just as well prepared for specialised master's programmes as students with a regular bachelor's background.

What does Liberal Arts education entail?

The LAE curriculum is characterised by its open and flexible structure. Unlike regular bachelor’s education, where curricula are largely predetermined, monodisciplinary and academically narrowly focused, the LAE curriculum is broad, multidisciplinary and open to students to choose their own courses from multiple disciplines. In this way, LAE students can design their own academic profile. Ultimately, each student chooses an academic focus, but for only 50% of the bachelor’s credits. The other 50% of the credits are used for skills training, projects and courses outside the chosen discipline. In this way, a broader academic background is stimulated.

The discussion

The core of the discussion around LAE is related to the open LAE curriculum.  "The notion that LAE graduates lack disciplinary depth and therefore are insufficiently prepared for a specialised master's programme and further career is perhaps the most frequently mentioned criticism of LAE," Milan Kovačević explains. Proponents of LAE argue the opposite: the broad profile combined with comprehensive skills education would prepare students well for master's programmes and the modern labour market. Despite relatively less disciplinary expertise, their broad background and skills would allow LAE students to quickly catch up to the same level as their fellow students with a regular bachelor's degree during their master's programme.

Research results

Although both sides present convincing arguments, until recently there was insufficient evidence to assume that LAE graduates would perform better or worse in master's programmes compared to students with a regular, more specialised background. To shed more light on this issue, researcher Milan Kovačević examined three specialised master's programmes at UM: International Business (SBE), Psychology (FPN), and Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience (FPN). For these master's programmes, he compared the academic performance of two groups of students: graduates of the Liberal Arts programme UCM and their peers with discipline-oriented bachelors.

Dropout rates, overall GPA and master’s thesis grades were used to measure the academic performance of these two groups of students. The results? There are no significant differences between the two groups with regard to dropout rates, GPA and master's thesis grades. UCM students thus appear to perform equally well as their peers with discipline-oriented bachelors. In the two master's programmes at FPN, UCM students even achieved a slightly higher GPA than their peers. Accordingly, the broad academic background of UCM students does not appear to have a negative effect on their performance in specialised master's programmes.

All in all, Milan Kovačević’s study has a clear conclusion: more breadth and flexibility in the bachelor's phase is no obstacle to further specialisation in the master's phase. “The key question is not whether specialization is needed or not, but at which stage it should occur. This always involves a trade-off between the general and specific components of higher education. The fast-changing and unpredictable career landscape is certainly increasing the value of general education and transferable skills, which translate into fostering the graduates' flexibility, necessary to navigate labour market changes in the long run. With this in mind, it is useful to know that an undergraduate curriculum that offers more breadth does not compromise the students' ability to specialize at a later stage. Hopefully, these findings can stimulate a wider discussion on the purpose and structure of the undergraduate curriculum, and the right timing of specialization,” says Milan Kovačević.

Teun Dekker, who supervised the research, adds: “In the labour market of the future, employees will need to constantly learn new things and update their skills, to deal with new technologies and social change. Undergraduate degrees should therefore focus on teaching students how to gain new knowledge. Liberal Arts education can help students develop the ability to specialise in their master’s programmes, but also to keep specialising throughout their working lives.”