“Are you calling me soft?” – Treating university as a whole package

I’m fed up reading so much gumph about ‘soft option’ courses and ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees.

You can’t purposefully turn university life into a more mainstream activity without developing a greater number of courses. If so many 18 year olds are expected to apply for Higher Education, there needs to be a selection of courses available to choose from, otherwise they won’t all find something to interest them over 3-4 years.

A recent article by Andreas Whittam in The Independent explains how the subject ‘Philosophy, Politics & Economics’ appears to be a ‘smart’ thing to study today, but that it was originally introduced as a modern alternative to classics. After its introduction, the subject was “looked down upon for many years as the ‘poor man’s Greats'”.

photo by Darwin Bell

Our opinions change over time. However, the scope of change within the realms of HE over the last decade or so hasn’t given people time to breathe yet. In a 24-hour, non-stop world, where everything seems out of date after about five minutes, I’m not surprised that newly created degree subjects are given a bad press.

Point is, there’s no such thing as ‘soft option’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’, because they are words based on individual opinions. People have different views on what a pointless or less difficult degree consists of. It’s all subjective nonsense.

No one degree is the same. One subject may require many hours of lectures, seminars and practical work. Another subject may be light on those requirements, but heavy on reading and number of essays. Certain degrees will contain large amounts of work across the board. None of these issues have sprung up because of supposed ‘soft option’ degrees; there has always been an element of difference, dependent on the subject being studied.

Yes, there is a greater choice out there. Yes, some courses may not currently be viewed as equal to an old-school/established subject.  Yes, it’s unfair.  But there is time for change. Plus, it’s not just about the degree you end up with; it’s about the bigger picture and grabbing hold of the opportunities available to you in university.  Those years in Higher Education are much better treated as an overall package.

There are two types of students:

  1. Those who care;
  2. Those who don’t.

A student who doesn’t care may have applied to university on the basis of what they think is a ‘soft option’ or ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree that will give them an easy pass, a few years of simple living, and great employment opportunities at the end of it. Maybe they didn’t even get as far as considering a job after their degree. Whatever the score, that attitude saddens me, because they should have done something that inspired them, even if that didn’t involve going to university at all.

A caring student will make their choices for the right reasons. Their choice of subject will be based on what they want to study, what interests them and, if they are really organised, how they see their future career. Over and above this, they will broaden their horizons and make the most of everything they do, not limited to studying.

That is to say, you can study a more traditional subject, yet come out of uni after a few years having experienced and developed less than a committed student on a course that you believe to be ‘Mickey Mouse’.

A small workload – whatever the degree – may lead to the disillusionment of even a caring student, but workload is dependent on the individual and how far they wish to explore. Even when the level of work can’t be improved upon, extra-curricular activities can give further enjoyment and turn disillusion away. This helps a student in the long-term anyway, because university participation is now a mainstream activity. A student needs to demonstrate more than a solid 2:1 to stand out from the crowd.

Therefore, time spent at university should be treated as a package, rather than focusing simply on the name of a course and the grade attached to it after three or four years study. If an individual applies for a course to further their career prospects, as well as actively participate in other relevant exercises for their CV and a successful future (and for some fun), their choice of degree subject should not be held under scrutiny.

Even current students like to argue about the quality of degree subjects.  So for some further reading, here are some good forum links on The Student Room:

Finally, check out what the Dean of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster has to say about ‘soft option’ Media Studies.

photo by Kanko


  1. While I agree that the concept of Mickey Mouse subjects is bonkers, I do worry about Mickey Mouse courses.
    I teach design, often seen as a MM subject. But the way I teach it, it’s not. It makes you think. It requires you to think. Design is an important, vibrant and deep subject.
    However, there are many design courses which are rubbish. Just three years of sitting at a computer learning how to use Photoshop. They’re not degrees. (You’re right that many students sign on to degrees expecting them to be “easy” – and get a shock when they turn out not to be).

    The issue is one of standards – what’s a degree supposed to be? What’s it supposed to do? The subject is irrelevant, it’s whether the course meets certain criteria in terms of depth and breadth that matters. For that I thank QAA guidelines! (I think I may be in a minority there).

    The critics of Mickey Mouse courses need to understand the difference between “subject” and “course”. Every subject has its Mickey Mouse courses and they should be identified. But to treat entire disciplines as unworthy of study?

    The last few months’ worth of exposure of MPs’ expenses, and the appalling way the health care debate in the US is being covered, are just two examples why media studies is one subject we need more of, not less. But good courses, rigourous, uncompromising, challenging.

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