Compulsory modules can be beneficial, but only when they make for a varied and stimulating course. Photograph: Alamy
The higher you climb the education ladder, the more freedom you have over the topics you study. Right?
Well, not necessarily. With an array of mutually exclusive modules with different credit values in different option blocks, choosing the topics to study each year can be infuriating. Universities need to re-think the way they offer course choices.
A study last year revealed that, since the rise in tuition fees, 29% of 17,000 students were dissatisfied with their courses, claiming that they were not good value for money.
We pay up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees and are emerging as graduates with unthinkable amounts of debt, so it's no wonder that students all over the UK are demanding more from their courses.
According to recent research, more than 20,000 students last year registered complaints, citing reasons including course content and the quality of academic teaching.
Compulsory modules are the backbone of many degree courses – and are often a source of irritation for students. One of the most common complaints is that courses are too narrow, or centered on one particular topic.
Laura Williams, an English undergraduate at the University of Reading, says the modules on her first year course were all compulsory, bar one, and that they were "overly focused on the renaissance period, which made me lose interest in the course, because I didn't have the opportunity to study what I really wanted to".
She says her decision to transfer to the University of Canterbury in her upcoming second year was largely influenced by the wider range of modules available.
However, compulsory modules don't always disappoint. Dan Calder, an anthropology student at the University of Kent, says compulsory modules are a good basis for other modules, adding that although he wasn't expecting to enjoy a module named "Thinkers and theories", but in hindsight thinks it was interesting and worthwhile.
Tilly Rossetti, a student at the University of St Andrews, was also initially worried that she'd have little interest in modules labelled "Romantic" or "Renaissance", but found the exposure to different eras to be beneficial.
"I know people who tell me that the compulsory medieval module sparked a love of medieval literature, which inspired them to start their MAs, so exposure to different topics can be a good thing," says Rossetti.
Option blocks often result in timetable clashes – especially for joint honours students.
Jacob MacQuarrie, an English and film student, says he experienced issues with his university's module blocks. "The module directories were released at different times, so I'd had to submit my English choices before I'd seen my film options, which meant there was a clash with one English module. I replaced that module with another, but there was a clash with yet another English module."
The problem isn't that university courses include compulsory modules or option blocks, but that the range of topics available needs to change and blocks must become more flexible to grant students more freedom over the content of their degrees.
"I think the reason that the St Andrews system works so well is that although we're given option blocks, we're also given a really good amount of module choices within these brackets," says Rossetti.
"So while I wasn't keen on studying tragedy in the age of Shakespeare, I was able to refine my module selection to one that matched my interests, which was literature and law in early modern England."
Part of the allure of university is being able to tailor our degrees to suit our own interests, so it's frustrating when this is restricted.
Universities must address this to ensure greater student satisfaction – compulsory modules must cover a range of topics to guarantee the course isn't focused on one movement or time period.
Option blocks, too, must be adjusted to provide greater flexibility for students to choose a variety of modules within the framework available. This could mean expanding the modules available in each block to cater for different interests, or offering fewer mutually exclusive modules.