Call to abandon four-year degrees

Money saved could go to help poor Scottish students fund masters study. Olga Wojtas reports

November 6, 2008

Scotland's universities should axe their four-year degrees to help poor students go on to postgraduate study, according to the president-elect of the University and College Union (UCU).

Stressing that he was speaking in a personal capacity, Alastair Hunter suggested that money saved by dropping a year from the four-year course could be used to subsidise masters degrees.

Dr Hunter, a speaker at a UCU conference, "Intellect and Democracy," at the University of Edinburgh, said that the expansion of higher education had worked only in terms of numbers, with a continuing dearth of students from the lowest socio-economic groups.

He said he had been struck by comments by James Alexander, immediate past president of the National Union of Students Scotland, who said poor students faced financial discrimination in going on to further study because masters degrees were not supported.

Dr Hunter said the increased numbers of students with first degrees meant that those seeking a career advantage had to have a second degree.

This then created a second level of discrimination against those who were socially or financially disadvantaged because postgraduate degrees often required funding from the student themselves, did not attract student loans and extended the time the individual was not in employment.

"Let's go for a three-year degree in Scotland, and the money that is saved should be devoted to public funding for those who wish to go on to a vocational, research or taught masters," Dr Hunter said.

Mary Senior, assistant secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), said the STUC was strongly committed to the principle of free education for all and still considered it an ambition worth striving for because of the "social, economic and cultural benefits" of giving people opportunities to enhance their "skills and abilities".

Ms Senior also warned that the interim report of Scotland's higher-education task force had "set alarm bells ringing" over its plans for the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to adopt a "light-touch" regulatory regime.

"Higher education is a public service, funded with significant resources from the public purse, and so the lines of accountability are crucial," she said.

But David Wann, former deputy chief executive of the SFC and now a consultant, said he believed "light touch" should be interpreted as "balanced touch".

In areas with a poor track record or no track record, there would be a stronger touch, he said.

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