Project 3.3

Knowledge, curriculum and student agency

The aim of this project is to provide an understanding of students’ transformation as a consequence of engagement with disciplinary knowledge during their undergraduate studies, building on empirical research across four universities in two countries.

Project team

  • Paul Ashwin, Lancaster University
  • Jenni Case, Virginia Tech
  • Jan McArthur, Lancaster University
  • Janja Komljenovic, Lancaster University
  • Kayleigh Rosewell, Lancaster University
  • Reneé Smit, University of Cape Town
  • Margaret Blackie, University of Stellenbosch
  • Nicole Pitterson, Virginia Tech
  • Ashish Agrawal, University of Cape Town


In contemporary times characterised by economic difficulties, dynamic social relationships and future uncertainty, there is a fresh interrogation of the purposes of an undergraduate education. Another contemporary focus in higher education is on the economic rationale of universities and on the special role of STEM disciplines, which are seen as lucrative for graduates’ career success as well as for the development of national economies.

What is less emphasised and also less understood is the transformational impact of these disciplines in terms of the ways in which they transform students’ sense of identity as they engage with disciplinary knowledge. This is a key element of ‘graduateness’ that is characteristic of higher education.

Research in this area to date has tended to focus on the social sciences and humanities, and has seldom covered more than one institution or operated longitudinally across a number of years. To address these gaps, this project will examine the relations between knowledge and curriculum, student agency, and identity. It will look specifically at undergraduate degree courses in chemistry and chemical engineering.

The project will therefore provide new understandings of ‘graduateness’ in natural and engineering sciences; longitudinally examine four universities across two countries and provide comparative data across institutions, countries and disciplines; and make connections between undergraduate degree courses at local/national and global levels.

Policy implications

This project is likely to affect higher education governance and related policy at institutional, national and international levels.

In particular, this project is likely to affect departmental and institutional policy on curriculum design, across universities and countries. University policies on pedagogic practices could benefit from the results of this study, as well as the curricula of programmes on teaching and learning for academic staff.

National and international policies related to the purposes of higher education and the role of universities in societies will also be affected as they do not currently take account of the transformative nature of university study and its relation to ‘graduateness’.