Given the reputations of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, I had long assumed that their master’s degrees would be regarded as the gold standard for postgraduate study, both in the UK and internationally.
So I was surprised on a trip to Germany a few years ago to hear a leading science professor bemoan some of the PhD students produced by these courses.
Students were bright and hard-working, but an MSc lasting one year just did not provide enough training to begin a doctorate, he said. Oxbridge alumni in his lab were notoriously slow starters and often required remedial help that those with a two-year master’s degree did not need.
Despite all the assurances about these “intensive” courses, he just did not buy the fact that you can do the equivalent of a two-year programme in one year, even with the very best students.
I imagine that that German professor will think the same about graduates emerging with a BA in just two years, however much universities claim that their students have worked harder over the course of their degree.
Many German educators are already horrified at having to cram undergraduate degrees into a mere three years after reforms linked to the Bologna Process, with courses previously lasting at least four years before Europe-wide harmonisation began.
Two-year degrees will look “dangerously short by way of Bologna Process norms”, observed David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies.
Some employers may even regard these qualifications as US-style “associate degrees”, even if they gain the requisite European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) points needed for full undergraduate degrees, he added.
Similar doubts about two-year fast-track degrees have also been raised by Graham Gibbs, the former director of the Oxford Learning Institute, University of Oxford.
Students would need to study for 80 hours a week if semesters remained at their current length – or 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year assuming longer terms – to clock up the 4,000 or so study hours expected in an undergraduate degree, wrote Professor Gibbs in a letter published in last week’s Times Higher Education.
However, two-year degree advocates argue that such sceptics ignore the clear benefits for students.
The University of Buckingham, where the vast majority of undergraduate degrees last two years, has enviable records for both graduate employment and student satisfaction, said Anne Miller, its registrar.
Creating a fourth academic term that runs over the summer means that students have more contact hours, allowing them to complete their studies more quickly, she said.
Beyond the Bologna question, however, it remains to be seen if students really want two-year degrees. Some may, if it saves on a year of accommodation costs, but this then means the loss of a year during a rite of passage – as well as 12 months of extracurricular activities, friendships and studies that most students will be loath to lose.