LONDON -- Until very recently, students in Britain who wanted to study more than one or two subjects at college received some blunt advice: "Go west" -- to the United States or Canada, where the classical tradition of a broad-based humanistic education has long flourished in liberal arts colleges. Despite their European origins, the liberal arts have been in continual retreat on the Continent, edged out by programs devoted to a single discipline like economics or history.
In Britain, the more traditional private schools have carried on the classical approach -- many still require students to study both Latin and ancient Greek -- but the British system, too, is one of relentlessly narrowing focus. Students, who may take a dozen different subjects at age 14, are expected to filter down to just three or four by age 16 in preparation for applying to study a single subject at university.
There are a few exceptions: Students studying natural sciences at Cambridge or Durham University are allowed to take courses across the sciences in their first two years before choosing one for their final-year exams. Oxford offers a number of joint honors degrees allowing students to combine two disciplines, like history and economics or philosophy and physics. The University of Edinburgh offers a similar program combining law and a number of other disciplines.
But anyone who wanted to study both the arts and the sciences, or to take courses across a range of disciplines, had to leave the country, until now. This past autumn, King's College London and University College London both admitted their first cohort of undergraduates to new programs in the liberal arts. The University of Exeter is set to begin offering a similar program next autumn. So are the University of Birmingham and the University of Kent in Canterbury, whose courses will each take four years to complete, making them even more like a U.S. undergraduate degree.
Aaron Rosen, deputy director of the liberal arts program at King's, said the resemblance was entirely intentional. "All of us who teach on the program here are either American or people who have an American component in our own education," said Dr. Rosen, who did his undergraduate studies at Bowdoin College in his native Maine and then earned a master's and a doctorate from Cambridge in theology. A specialist in Jewish art, a field he said "most people would say doesn't exist," Dr. Rosen said his colleagues' familiarity with the American system "gives us the opportunity to correct some of the flaws that are endemic in the U.S."
The liberal arts in the United States, he said, "got drunk on their own eccentricity."
"When I was at Bowdoin it seemed like the departments competed to offer the most narrow, irrelevant courses," he said. "This gives us a chance to dial it back to fundamentals."
Each year, all students on the King's College program will be required to take one core course -- the first one, which looks at London itself, combining history, literature, art and geography, is to be taught by Dr. Rosen. Students will also be required to study a modern language, to choose a major at the end of their first year and to spend part of their second year abroad.
"There are trade-offs with the traditional single-subject approach in terms of the number of courses you can take," said James E. Bjork, head of King's College's liberal arts program. But Dr. Bjork, who teaches European history, said that "we think it makes you a better historian, for example, if you spend three years having done other things than just history. It gives you a sense of what's unique to a subject and what isn't."
For Carl Gombrich, who directs the University College London program, a broader perspective is second nature. With degrees in mathematics, physics and philosophy, he was an opera singer before becoming an academic. He is also the grandson of Ernst Gombrich, the art historian whose work he cites as the inspiration for his efforts to reach across disciplines. "My grandfather was a brilliant psychologist. Yet he never took an exam in psychology. Instead he said, 'Let's think about how we perceive things.' He was a classic interdisciplinarian."
At U.C.L., core courses, including modules on quantitative methods, approaches to knowledge, language and qualitative thinking, form half the program. "We teach all our students the tools of coding. We teach them all how to understand and use statistics," Dr. Gombrich said. The other half of core courses is devoted to major pathways: cultures, health and the environment, sciences and engineering, and societies.
Perhaps most audacious is the U.C.L. program's ambition to bridge the chasm dividing what the writer C.P. Snow once described as "the two cultures" of science and the humanities.
All applicants will be required to have A-levels, the single-subject exams that serve for both high school graduation and university admissions, in both the humanities and in math or a science. All British universities require A-levels in at least three subjects. Students who study a science as their major will have to study a humanities minor, and vice versa. "We're determined to be just as science-y as we are arts-y," Dr. Gombrich said. Graduates will receive a bachelor of arts and sciences degree.
"We've taken a big risk," Dr. Gombrich said, acknowledging that defenders of the traditional single-subject approach might argue the new program lacks depth.
"But that's a rather British view of what depth is," he said. "If you study psychology, half your courses might be on topics you're not interested in. Wouldn't it be better to do a module on child health, or linguistics or embryology?"
So far both programs seem popular. "We've exceeded our expected applications by 25 percent," Dr. Gombrich said, adding that applications for next year were up by a further 10 percent.
Gabrielle Cecil, a first-year student at King's College London, said she "fell in love with the course."
"I found deciding which A-levels to take so hard, and applying to study just one at university just seemed impossible," she said.
Ms. Cecil, who grew up on a farm in Cornwall, said that coming to London had also been a big factor, as it was for her classmate Jibran Khan. Mr. Khan had already completed a year studying economics and Arabic when he heard about the course at King's and decided to apply even though it meant starting his degree all over again.
"I liked it that they don't just let you do one or two subjects. You get to bring them together, which wasn't true at Edinburgh," said Mr. Khan, an American who "grew up moving between countries."
Many of the King's students said they had also considered colleges in the United States. "I was very close to enrolling at Tufts," near Boston, said Fabian Midby, a Swede who, after taking courses in French, geography, politics, philosophy and film his first year, has decided to major in economics. In addition to being closer to home for European students, with tuition capped at £9,000, or about $14,000, a year for British and European students, both schools are considerably cheaper than comparable U.S. schools.
Even American students, who would pay £17,000 at U.C.L. and £15,000 at King's, would still save a whole year on tuition and living expenses.
Dr. Gombrich said he would know the program was a success if, at the end of their three years, liberal arts students did as well or better on their final subject exams as U.C.L. students taking a single subject. And if that calls into question the whole British model, the university's president, Malcolm Grant, said he did not mind.
"I've always felt it was a mistake to make students specialize such a young age," he said in an interview. "At 15, how many people know they want to be scientists -- or lawyers?"
"This program combines the best of the British model, where you progress from year to year, with the fairly significant amount of choice you have in America," Dr. Grant said. "If we can continue to attract the smartest students, as we have done in the first year, I think this will become the principal mode of entry into this university," he said.
U.C.L. plans on hold
University College London said last week on its Web site that it was seeking a new site for its planned £1 billion Stratford campus after talks fell apart with the council representing Newham, a London borough. According to Times Higher Education, U.C.L.'s plans to build in an area that is currently home to Carpenters Estate, a housing development, prompted protests.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.