Two-year degrees are a must, but we need to get them right

Not every course takes three years to complete, says Charles Prince, so we must look at ways to deliver accelerated programmes

January 29, 2018

It reduces the time that it takes to earn a degree. It reduces the amount of student debt. It allows the university to truly respond to industry and student voices. The time is now for universities to take two-year degrees seriously.

In name alone, two-year degree programmes rock the foundations that higher education institutions are built on. But industry is asking for change, students are asking for change and so is the government.

Therefore, two-year degrees are an important component in the survival of post-secondary institutions in the UK. Not every degree offered in a university takes three years to complete in order to get a job. Some industries are choosing accelerated private programmes to certify students in particular fields, while others are looking to hire students with, at minimum, a master’s degree. Every industry changes, while the student population also changes.

My institution, the University of East London, is one example. Approximately 50 per cent of our students are mature students and more than 80 per cent are black and minority ethnic (BAME). The majority come from low socio-economic backgrounds.

As an African American man, my circumstances would have been different had I received my teaching degree in two years. I am a proponent of two-year degrees and I think that they should be part of the portfolio of many universities. I approach the topic with the UEL in mind as well as my own personal experience at a small private university.

In the United States, student debt, the length of time that it takes to earn a degree, what is being taught in universities, and the path to employment are all considered in conversations currently taking place. Some institutions in the US are looking to reduce their degrees from four to three years (or they are looking at ways to condense four years into three calendar years). This could mean that students continue to study throughout the summer months.

However you look at it, shorter degrees are becoming a major talking point and, in some instances, could do much to reduce the outlay on education. It seems that more and more politicians want better quality and less expensive degrees – and they are the ones who can drive through these changes.

Approaching two-year degrees

There are a number of ways to achieve a workable two-year degree. The UEL’s official response to two-year degrees is that it supports them for certain students and programmes. The degree must be flexible and adapt to serve the diverse population of students who attend our institution.

However, these degrees cannot be offered in a vacuum and such programmes must be developed with both employers and technology in mind. For two-year degrees to be successful, I believe that you need to consider three key components:

Curriculum and student expectations

In thinking about the curriculum and student expectations, two-year degrees cannot follow typical academic calendars.

Students should attend classes with as few breaks as possible. This should also be the case for the academics who are teaching the degree programmes. The curriculum needs to offer a mix of theory, practical courses and competency-based modules.

Increased time for coursework will also be necessary. In my opinion, accelerated degree programmes will have to resemble master’s programmes and run year-round. Curriculum specialists need to be included to ensure that quality is kept at the same standard as traditional degree routes. However, once a two-year degree path has been offered in a subject, I believe that longer degree programmes will ultimately cease to exist.

Technology

Fast-track degree programmes will need an online component. Institutions will need to have self-paced modules, where students finish within a set time frame but within boundaries, and online modules allow for this. 

There isn’t a software product or enterprise system software that can be purchased to support this work. Institutions will need to invest in a system that works for both academics and students.

Employer involvement

Employers must be on board to ensure successful two-year degree programmes. The best thing about such involvement is if employers have designed and assessed modules as well as provided placements and direct paths to jobs. Since industry is looking for alternatives and is open to partnering with accelerated private providers, it may also partner with universities that have the same, or better, capabilities on delivery.

Industrial advisory boards, or committees that are made up of businesses dedicated to the success of a university, should be consulted and bound to the success of such degree programmes.

Closing thoughts

As the director of the Centre for Student Success at the UEL, it is my job to ensure that I find ways to support students.

It is about changing the university in order to meet the needs of students and balancing that with the difficulties that students may face when trying to adapt to the new approach. We must not forget that notion. It is about how universities build themselves in ways that have, perhaps, never before been imagined.

Charles B. W. Prince is the director of the Centre for Student Success at the University of East London and a doctoral student in global executive education at the University of Southern California.

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