Alan Ryan

December 2, 2005

Two-year degrees are not a financial quick fix, but they are worth trying for students who would prefer not to hang about

A couple of weeks ago, there was an interesting exchange in the House of Commons. Polly Toynbee told a seminar of university administrators, and assorted researchers and journalists, that most students studying for arts degrees were bored and unhappy, undertaught and underdirected, and taking three years to amble in a desultory fashion through courses they could decently and more cheaply have completed in two.J The interesting thing was not so much the complaint - which is too broadbrush to be wholly persuasive but difficult to resist entirely - as the variety of responses it elicited.

The variety is not surprising, of course. There are plainly three very distinct questions: first, whether you could do in two years of intensive study what too many students drift through in three; second, whether some alternative version of a first degree would be of more use to the majority of students; and, third, whether you could really make the first degree cheaper by doing, say, an eight-quarter, two-year programme rather than a three-year course.

The answer to the first question is plainly "yes". There are many universities that, to all intents and purposes, teach their students for two ten-week terms and do next to nothing beyond a few exams in the third.

Some students will do useful internships and placements in the summer, but many will just stack shelves.

Four ten-week quarters a year, with three-week breaks between quarters, would produce 20 weeks' more teaching time. Even if you allowed two weeks a quarter for revision and examination, you would still have 64 real teaching weeks, with time to do internships and placements during the term.

The answer to the second question is "perhaps". Sixty-five per cent of US students want to do some sort of business studies during their first degree, and it is plausible that, given the choice, UK students would be rather like them.

Whether that is what they should be doing is another question. What is at least plausible is that some sort of superior general education training for two intensive years would leave students more ready for the world of work than a lot of what they do at present. Or a year of that and a preliminary year of something either academic or more vocational as a link to further study or professional training. That is one version of a foundation degree that makes some sense; a two-year eight-quarter degree has more scope than a six-term version.

What to teach is a different issue from that of how long to teach it for, but they are connected. At the time of the Robbins report, it was widely assumed that large numbers of students would take four years to get a BA, followed by an MA, on the grounds that they'd need a foundation year, then a degree that combined two or three different disciplines, then an MA in something more focused. A two-plus-two-plus-two system with room for some acceleration would provide much the same.

The third question is the tricky one. On the face of it, students would benefit from having to pay fees for only two years; they would have to borrow Pounds 6,000 rather than £9,000. But given that most students who would go down this route would get a lot of fee remission, the difference is less than it seems. Again, they would have to arrange living expenses for only two years rather than three, and that looks like another £5,000 they need not borrow.

But is that an illusion? If students are really going to keep their noses to the grindstone for 40 weeks a year, they will not have much time to earn money on the side. The idea that students are all going to pile up the full loans to which they are entitled and wait until they are earning £15,000 a year or more to pay any of it back is implausible. Many will want to earn as they go and might be better served by slower, part-time routes to a degree, especially if these routes were more generously funded.

And as for universities, they would need a third more teaching staff and would have to find a way to replace the income they currently get from conferences when their students have gone home for the holidays.

So, two-year degrees are not a quick fix financially and would be something of a nightmare to introduce. On the other hand, Buckingham University has been offering them ever since it opened its doors, and there is much to be said for letting students who want to get on and get out do exactly that.

Whether they would have a therapeutic impact on the underprepared and uncertain is a different matter; but it would be an experiment worth trying.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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