On Sunday, the UK government announced plans to increase provision of two-year degrees. They plan to do this (as is their wont) by raising fees.
In this case, the cap for such courses will be increased to £11,100 a year, and the universities minister Jo Johnson believes the move will have a potentially “transformational” impact.
In short, the plans mean that those institutions that can charge the maximum £9,250 for standard three-year undergraduate degrees will be able to charge £11,100 a year for two-year courses in order to help them recoup the extra teaching costs incurred.
The government laid out its maths, calculating that two-year degree students could be £24,500 better off when you factor in their increased earnings (they’ll go to work a year earlier, you see). However, Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary said there was “no concrete evidence” that squeezing three years into two will “stem the huge drop in part-time students, or lead to better outcomes".
So is this a good idea? I thought I would ask my Twitter followers what they thought of the plans. I received nearly 100 replies.
£11,100 a year tuition fees for two-year accelerated degrees. Thoughts? https://t.co/8o9FOruLM6— Phil Baty (@Phil_Baty) December 10, 2017
The tweet triggered some interesting discussions. Sjoerd Levelt (@slevelt ) pointed out that students would have far less time to think about, plan and write their assignments.
Charlie (@ce_winch) didn't see any problem. “Students get ~5/6 months holiday a year, you could reduce that to 2/3 months and fit in the 3rd year without increasing weekly intensity much at all,” he said.
But when students get ~5/6 months holiday a year, you could reduce that to 2/3 months and fit in the 3rd year without increasing weekly intensity much at all. Obviously not for all, for for many social science / humanities subjects = great idea.— Charlie (@ce_winch) December 10, 2017
This little row continued for some time (follow it here) – with some excellent points made on both sides. Charlie is convinced it would have worked for him, Sjoerd believes it will do “severe damage to UK higher ed”.
and I’m telling you, the current system does not have enough stretch to accommodate it large-scale without doing severe damage to UK higher ed, and blanket statements about “many humanities and social sciences degrees” this or that are misguided for all the reasons above.— Sjoerd Levelt (@SLevelt) December 10, 2017
Of course, all this debate about whether two-year courses are a good idea or not is moot if universities decide against offering them.
Johnson says the potential benefits for students will be “so huge it will create significant ‘first-mover’ advantage for the institutions that offer these accelerated courses”. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he? And as the University of Greenwich’s David Morris pointed out, there’s no guarantee that universities will want to offer degrees that, ultimately, bring in less cash.
Only if the courses are offered. Apart from risky attempt to undercut market, can’t see Uni finance directors willingly recommending delivery of courses with lower margins.— David Morris (@dgmorris295) December 10, 2017
Continuing this thread, Edge Hill University’s Charles Knight pointed out that because delivery costs for such courses could also be higher than those for traditional degrees, an “army of hourly paid staff” might be required to deliver them. Matthew Robb, managing director of Parthenon-EY, foresaw potential changes to academics’ contracts.
Might see some changes to academic contracts... can't see academics at London teaching universities retaining most of their research activities etc. Most have lost ~5-10% enrollments each year for last 5 years.— matthew robb (@matthewrobb701) December 10, 2017
This discussion also continued for some time (full thread), with both raising concerns about what it would mean for the future of university teaching. They didn’t always agree.
Or you retain high quality teachers - paid well - and ditch the drossy researchers.— matthew robb (@matthewrobb701) December 10, 2017
Lucca Morini, who works at Coventry University’s Disruptive Media Learning Lab, was also worried about the amount of time available – pointing out that degrees in the UK are “already about 25 per cent to 50 per cent ‘lighter’” than in other countries that use the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System. “Going further would just create de-professionalising degree factories,” he said.
Absolutely, I am however arguing (with plenty other researchers in education), that "learning outcomes" are a poor/reductionist/behaviourist way of framing those criteria. And that we can't resort to factory-like efficiency arguments - "same product, built faster" does not apply.— Luca Morini (@LucaMorini11) December 10, 2017
Unsurprisingly, this was not the only discussion about timescales. While many believed there was sufficient "slack" in the UK university year to allow a degree course to be delivered 33 per cent more quickly...
I think cutting holidays down for students to 3 x 2 weeks over a year and packing more in to the weeks left gives a perfect model for 2 years, also with blended online and face to face and robust assessments also blended.I would favout it for longer courses too— jane wilcock (@janewilcock) December 10, 2017
I've actually spoken to students about this. They thought it was a great idea, until they found out it would mean no summer holiday and he much more intense. As a lecturer it means they have less time to develop their gradual skills, which takes time.— Sally Andrews (@DrSallyAndrews) December 10, 2017
...the majority of those responding felt that the efficiencies required would be detrimental to the quality of education offered.
The British three-year course, with far fewer hours per term than the US four-year BA, is already as pared down as it can get. A two-year corse, unless something less than a BA (like US community college associate degree), makes no sense.— Stefan Andreasson (@StAndreasson) December 10, 2017
This would be nearly like giving someone a university degree for completing a short course extending A levels. Ridiculous. If anything, university degrees need to be at least four years.— Alex Olaya-Castro (@AlexOlayaCastro) December 10, 2017
This will reduce the available time to apply the theory in practice through student run organizations, internships etc. I am afraid the "outcome" in the end will not be the same. Attending university is more than taking classes!— Thorsten Wuest (@ThorstenWuest) December 10, 2017
It’s a way of reintroducing a two tier system (old uni/poly) and some institutions that can’t or don’t want to be fully ‘academic’ (forgive the shorthand) will jump at it. A longer course at an older institution will still be gold standard.— Prof June Girvin (@ProfJuneG) December 10, 2017
I was looking for one response to my tweet that best summed up the debates that it had provoked. It's hard to do. On the one hand, there is a clear precedent for the two-year degree. Places like the University of Buckingham have been offering them for years, and they view them positively.
On the other, the UK higher system is already known internationally for its speed. Our master's degrees often take just one year to complete, which is quicker than in many countries (something that has prompted complaints that UK master's students are simply not up to scratch when they start their PhD).
It is also worth noting that the move to shorter degrees is out of step with what some others have in the pipeline. Michael Spence, vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, recently outlined plans to introduce broader four-year degrees at his institution, allowing for a greater focus on problem solving.
“The skills that machines won’t have particularly well – creativity, interpersonal skills, the ability to think laterally – [these are] the kinds of skills that you need to tell the machines what to do, [and] university education is going to need to be shifted more in that direction,” Dr Spence said.
Other countries too – including Hong Kong and India – have increased the number of four-year degrees on offer in recent years, suggesting the international trend might actually be away from shorter courses. As this tweet pointed out, there are certainly arguments for slowing down, rather than speeding up, the undergraduate experience.
I know a few people who would give you £11,100 to slow their degree the hell down!— Hayley Stanway (@HayleyStanwayF1) December 10, 2017
So finding one tweet to sum up the response to the announcement is tough. On balance, though, I think this, from Cambridge physics professor Dame Athene Donald, does a pretty good job of rounding up the responses that I saw online to the government's plans. We will watch with interest how these courses develop.
Education is not about stuffing facts into brains as fast as possible merely to pass exams. Education needs time for thought and reflection https://t.co/pA01aswcZz— Athene Donald (@AtheneDonald) December 10, 2017
Phil Baty is editorial director, global rankings, at Times Higher Education.