Abertay ‘pauses’ shorter degrees as staff complain of ‘pressure’

Scottish university piloted accelerated degrees, but challenges highlighted in review raises broader questions over such courses

December 30, 2019
Source: Getty

Abertay University has paused its programme of accelerated degrees after staff at the university complained of additional pressure and workload, potentially raising questions about the use of shorter courses across the UK.

The Dundee institution also said it was worried that students on the shorter courses were not getting the “full university experience”.

Abertay began piloting six shorter degree programmes in 2015.

In recent years the Westminster government has pushed for more fast-track, accelerated degrees. In 2019, it passed further legislation supporting their expansion. Shorter degrees mean that students pay less overall in tuition fees or living costs, working through what would have been holidays and completing in two years instead of three in England, or three years instead of four in Scotland.

However, in May this year Abertay decided that it would not enrol any more students on to the shorter courses because “careful evaluation and examining data” made them question whether it “made sense” to continue to offer them, said Andrea Cameron, dean of the School of Applied Sciences at the university.

Early evaluations raised issues regarding staff workload, lack of time to reflect on and prepare materials, and capacity to take annual leave.

The university subsequently conducted a more extensive review of the staff involved in accelerated degree delivery, recently presented by Ms Cameron at the Society for Research into Higher Education conference. The survey again found negative sentiment toward this provision among staff, who felt that the shorter degrees diluted value and quality “while detracting from deeper and slower learning”.

Although staff said that some students were successful in this type of learning, they said that others struggled, and raised concerns about the “fractured” experience of students.  

According to the study, heads of department had worked to address the workload issues but “there remained perceptions by the academic staff of a lack of equity regarding the distribution of teaching. This was exacerbated in areas where there had been rapid growth in student numbers with staff recruitment struggling to keep apace,” it said.

However, a parallel survey of students found almost the opposite. Those on the accelerated degrees said that the experience was “wholly positive”, especially because they felt that their smaller classes helped them with focused learning.

Out of the 30 students in the study on accelerated programmes, 89 per cent achieved their degree, in contrast to 77 per cent of the 56 non-accelerated peers in the study.  

Ms Cameron said that students on the shorter courses chose this route because they were keen to get into the job market quicker.

This had clearly been effective but “there are certain aspects of the student experience that students might not be getting,” she told Times Higher Education. “Yes, maybe they can meet learning outcomes, but have they really had that whole immersion in the degree experience? It’s about more than just content and absorbing knowledge, there has to be time to reflect and to assimilate that knowledge.”

“Abertay likes to be innovative; we’re small and nimble so we can be, but you’ve got to be cautious and aware of the challenges,” she added.  “We have to look at how to ensure we create the space for our staff, if they are doing research and outreach and other things they care about, when providing this type of programme.” 

Ms Cameron added that Abertay was looking into the possibility of providing some professional courses that would be better suited to shorter delivery.

She said it was important that if universities are to deliver on the accelerated degrees agenda, they must evaluate first and share their findings, rather than rushing in. “We shouldn’t close ourselves off to new ideas, just make sure we do them right,” she continued.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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