The most useful university courses and degrees are the hardest to get into. For example, most people would benefit from knowing something about accounting. But do universities facilitate the study of accounting? No. Everywhere admission into Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Business Administration programs is restricted.
It's the interests of business schools to turn away customers. As faculty complements respond only slowly to changes in student numbers, in the short run fewer students mean smaller classes and a generally pleasant life for faculty. Moreover, when admission to business school is difficult and competitive, only the best students are able to gain admission. Hence a Bachelor of Commerce degree becomes a signal of ability - specifically, the ability to earn high school grades above the entrance cut-off.
Yet if competitive entry requirements mean that Bachelor of Commerce graduates are, on average, better students than other graduates, they will also be better employees (providing success in school and success in the workplace is correlated). So employers, regardless of whether or not business schools actually teach anything useful, will prefer to hire B Comms. Potential students, observing this, will try even harder to get into business school - and so the cycle continues, until the business school has a shiny new building and every professor earns over $200,000 a year.
I've picked on business here, but a similar story can be told for many other degrees. Another factor leading to admission restrictions is that many useful courses, for example, ones involving writing, tutoring, or hands on data analysis, require a lot of instructional resources. It's cheap to pack students into a 500-person lecture theatre and give multiple choice exams.
What can people in the arts and social sciences do to keep up student numbers, and at the same time protect the reputation of their programs?
One idea that often gets bounced around is unbundling the BA. UBC, for example, has just introduced a Bachelor of International Economics degree. The University of Calgary has a Bachelor of Communication Studies. And some of Canada's newer universities, like Capilano University, offer highly specialized degrees such as the Bachelor of Motion Picture Arts. Yet no Canadian university has gone as far as have universities in Australia.
Australian National University, for example, offers a truly dizzying variety and range of different degree programs. The only way to get some sense of them is to click here and explore yourself. Interested in studying economics? You could take a Bachelor of Economics, a Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics, a Bachelor of Social Sciences, a Bachelor of Arts, and possibly other degrees as well (see list here).
ANU is not unique. University of Sydney also offers a wide range of different degree programs, as do other Australian universities.
I would be really interested in hearing an Australian perspective on the specialized degree phenomenon. Has it helped recruiting efforts? Does it give units more control over their program design, course offerings and admission requirements? Does it change the way that degrees are marketed, and students' understanding of what they will learn in university?
My immediate impression, looking at the ANU website, is plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Universities are large bureaucratic organizations offering dozens, if not hundreds, of different programs. Marketing, recruitment and admissions are, for the most part, delegated to professional services staff. Sure, every unit could have their own, bespoke degree - or two, or three. But what would we end up with? Instead of a BA with innumerable majors, there would be innumerable degree programs, and students would still be confused. Moreover, large bureaucracies can only function if there is some degree of standardization - standard nomenclature, requirements, and so on. Replacing the BA with the B Econ does not eliminate the need for standardization, transferability, and so on.
Getting a degree to stand out from the crowd requires years of patient effort - designing a good program, building a reputation, crafting talking points that the university's recruiters can understand and deliver, sending good graduates out into the community, and so on.
I can see the case for unbundling the BA. A student with a BA in Economics has a training so different from that of a BA in English that it hardly makes sense to award them the same degree. The idea of a "Bachelor of Arts" has little resonance with or meaning for many of today's students. Those student who do like the idea of a BA may be looking for a great books, ivy-covered-walls, bearded professor type BA, not a degree in communication studies or economics. Moreover, as an economist, surely I should believe in entrepreneurship - letting units innovate, offer the degrees that they think will be attractive to students, and letting the market decide.
But I've also been around university bureaucracies long enough to know that one has to be very careful in what one wishes for....