The UK government has unveiled plans to increase provision of two-year degrees by raising the fee cap for such courses in England to £11,100, with Jo Johnson, the universities minister, describing the move as having a potentially “transformational” impact.
The Department for Education will publish a consultation on the plans on 11 December, with secondary legislation to increase the fee cap for accelerated courses expected to follow.
Under the plans, universities with permission to charge the maximum £9,250 for standard degrees would be able to charge £11,100 a year for two-year degrees, to help them recoup extra costs required for the more intensive annual teaching load.
The DfE says that benefits “include a £5,500 (20 per cent) saving for students in total tuition costs compared to a standard three-year course”. The DfE calculates that this, “added to the average salary of £19,000 in the first year after graduating” (two-year graduates will start work a year earlier), means that “students could be left over £25,000 better off by choosing an accelerated degree” (actually, its calculations produce a £24,500 total).
However, as tuition fee repayments are determined by graduates’ earnings and because only a small minority will repay their student loans in full, many would question whether this element truly amounts to a typical saving for graduates. There are benefits for the government from reduced loan outlay.
The DfE does not refer to the potential saving on maintenance costs – perhaps to avoid drawing attention to the significant living costs that students face and the fact that the government has scrapped maintenance grants.
The potential benefits for students will be “so huge it will create significant ‘first-mover’ advantage for the institutions that offer these accelerated courses first, rapidly, and do so across a broad range of subjects”, Mr Johnson told Times Higher Education.
The government is aiming at “removing the financial barrier” preventing “institutions presently capped at £9,250 from covering the extra costs they incur…over 45 weeks of two years rather than the normal 30 weeks over three years”, the minister continued.
He said that he expected the move to be “transformational over time” and to produce “a significant uptake” in accelerated courses “over the next decade”.
Mr Johnson also said: “We’ve heard a lot about the decline in the number of mature students. And there is clear evidence mature students would be attracted to an accelerated way of studying…I’d be disappointed if there were a knee-jerk defensiveness [from universities]: ‘it’s not for us, it’s for others.’ I think all institutions have a role to play in widening participation and taking access seriously.”
Does the government want to increase two-year provision because it is cheaper for the government? “Value for money is important,” replied Mr Johnson. “If you can achieve significantly the same benefits at a lower cost, why wouldn’t you want to make that choice available to people?”
But he said that the government was “not being prescriptive” about the length of course students take; rather, it wanted “more flexibility” and “a broader range of choices”.
He also said that the move would be “good for the taxpayer, too”, explaining that “lower loan outlay, faster repayments, less subsidy” were “not of negligible importance”.
“We’re entirely confident there will be no sacrifice of quality,” he added of shorter courses.
Is a vote in Parliament to raise fees a tricky ask in the current climate? The plan had “cross-party support when we put the measure in the Higher Education and Research Act to enable us to lift the cap specifically for courses that the OfS [Office for Students] certified as being accelerated,” Mr Johnson said.
He added: “This is a policy that has been advocated for decades by politicians of all colours.”