Beware the two-year downsides

Report says short courses would harm research and make students less employable. John Morgan writes

July 29, 2010

The two-year degrees championed by the government could "disadvantage UK graduates in the global market" and prevent academics from pursuing research, a report to a Russell Group university argues.

A paper presented to Newcastle University's council this month states that there are "no overriding arguments" to introduce the shortened courses at the institution. The paper, written by Ella Ritchie, pro vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at Newcastle, comes in the context of government enthusiasm for two-year degrees as a means to cut fee and student-support costs in higher education.

Professor Ritchie weighed up the pros and cons of two-year degrees, but expressed worries about their impact on research-led teaching and students' chances of maturing intellectually at university.

In her conclusion, she writes: "There are currently no overriding arguments to move to two-year degree programmes. Any initiative for a large-scale change needs to be considered against other university priorities, such as improving our performance in the research excellence framework, strengthening research-led teaching and enhancing the student experience."

Professor Ritchie also warns that by creating a need for year-round teaching, two-year degrees would increase the burden on administrators and also "have huge impact on the way in which our academic staff are organised".

"In particular, it would be challenging to ensure that the time for staff to do research, engage with new knowledge and update teaching materials is preserved," she writes.

Professor Ritchie also suggests that two-year degrees could make students "less employable" and "diminish the perceived value of a Newcastle degree to employers".

She adds: "There is a danger that it could disadvantage UK graduates in the global market. Some multinational employers are already favouring German and French graduates to UK ones because of their level of development."

Vince Cable, the business secretary, said in a recent speech that the funding "bias" towards three-year, full-time study should be ended. "Two-year intensive courses rather than three-year courses with long vacations already attract some students," he said. However, his speech did not focus on two-year degrees, contrary to some expectations.

Management at Newcastle appear keen to leave the door open to two-year degrees, despite Professor Ritchie's report and members of its senate recommending that the university give "no further consideration" to the idea at present.

A Newcastle spokesman said the university would keep the issue of the degrees "under review".

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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