At least once a decade, the old chestnut of two-year degrees is disinterred - and, until now at least, subsequently reburied. It happened in the 1970s during Margaret Thatcher's stewardship of education, again in the 1980s with the Leverhulme report co-authored by Baroness Blackstone and twice in the 1990s, when a number of institutions eventually did pilot accelerated degrees. Perhaps the advent of top-up fees means that the two-year degree is an idea whose time has come, but history (and the culture of higher education) is against it.
The only prolonged experience of the accelerated degree has been at Buckingham University, where necessarily higher fees have made comparisons with the state sector invidious. The course came through a Quality Assurance Agency audit with flying colours but students are still hard to attract. This year, with top-up fees narrowing the gap in the cost of a degree between Buckingham and elsewhere, the number of applications is still down to little more than 700.
Neither is the experience of foundation degrees encouraging thus far. Here are two-year courses tailored to the employment market, with considerable backing from the Government and marketing campaigns to match. But recruitment has been generally disappointing. Students apparently fear that the qualification will be regarded as second rate and they continue to opt for traditional degrees. The same anxiety may dog two-year degrees, which are unlikely to be offered in more prestigious universities, whose research agenda will make them impractical.
An evaluation of the 1990s pilots found that the courses improved students' time-management skills but, not surprisingly, left little time for reflection or the consolidation of learning. Students complained about stress, but pass rates were high and there was no measurable disadvantage in the employment market. There were problems with professional recognition of some courses, however, particularly in Europe, and none of the courses survived to the millennium.
All the same issues will apply to the pilots starting in the autumn. For the student, there is plenty of scope for extending an academic year that barely exceeds six months in some cases. The financial advantages of compressing a course into two years are obvious, even without fees, although reduced opportunities for students to earn while they learn should not be ignored. But students will want to be confident about the currency of two-year programmes, particularly as the Bologna Process leads to tighter regulation on the Continent.
The natural defensiveness in higher education that greeted the early proposals for two-year degrees ought not be a factor this time. Even the most optimistic minister surely could not expect the current pilots to have more than a marginal impact; this is not the thin end of a wedge designed to transform the system. The experiment should be welcomed as an extension to an increasingly diverse sector, but one that will need realistic funding to succeed even on such modest terms.