Fast-track degrees ‘would create two-tier academy’ in England

Students and staff raise concerns about impact of more two-year degrees

March 9, 2017
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Fast and furious: when three-year degrees become two, year-round teaching means that staff have no time to update courses, do research or go on holiday, one critic claimed

More academics will be pushed into stressful teaching-only contracts if fast-track honours degrees are rolled out across England, it has been warned.

While universities have cautiously welcomed plans to allow them to charge up to £14,000 a year for “compressed” two-year degrees, staff and student bodies have now raised concerns about any large-scale shift towards year-round university teaching.

Michael Carley, University and College Union branch president at the University of Bath, said that any significant shift to two-year degrees would result in damaging changes to academic workloads and career paths.

“It would lead to a two-tier career structure where most teaching would be carried out by staff on year-round teaching-only contracts with a small elite considered ‘real’ academics who would also do research,” said Dr Carley. 

“Given that employers are not ruling out the transfer of staff to teaching-only contracts, as preparation for the next research excellence framework, this is a serious concern,” he added.

Year-round teaching took no account of the need for staff to update and rewrite courses, conduct research or take holidays with their children – an opportunity needed to make up for the “excessive hours worked by many staff” over the current teaching period, he claimed.

“It is also hard to see how this can operate since universities will be operating in a state of permanent assessment – at any time, there will either be exams coming, being conducted, or being marked and processed, or repeat assessments being set,” Dr Carley added.

However, it is possible for academics to remain research-active while teaching on two-year degree courses, said Anne Miller, registrar at the University of Buckingham, where 90 per cent of undergraduate degrees, excluding medicine, last two years.

Buckingham divides its academic year into four terms (two nine-week terms and two 11-week terms with formal exams every six months), with academic staff given a term off from teaching and administrative duties to conduct research, Ms Miller said.

“The key challenge of switching wholesale to two-year degrees will be an administrative one because there are shorter breaks, and you need to ensure that you have robust procedures to maintain quality,” she said. 

However, two-year degrees represent “better value for money for students because they save on living costs in a third year and students are in graduate jobs sooner”, Ms Miller argued.

Students also benefit from the continuity of contact with tutors as courses are not interrupted by the long summer holidays, she said.

David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, agreed that it was possible to compress three years of teaching into two without reducing teaching volumes.

“Many undergraduates on three-year degrees have all their teaching compressed into terms one and two each year – six terms in total – so a two-year degree could still give the same six terms and perhaps more if the summer vacations were used,” said Mr Palfreyman.

“More of a problem is whether external professional bodies may move to prevent the short-changing of teaching quantum and keep degrees in nine terms, so we will probably not see two-year degrees in engineering, physics or nursing unless really intensive use [is] made of summer holidays,” he added.

However, Sorana Vieru, the National Union of Students’ vice-president (higher education), said that a switch to two-year degrees may “compromise the student experience” as those on accelerated courses may miss out on extracurricular activities now demanded by many employers.

“Students could end up missing out on extracurricular activities or work opportunities, which nowadays have become crucial in developing skills, making contact with employers and securing a graduate job, if they have little spare time alongside studying,” said Ms Vieru. “This would disadvantage students from underprivileged backgrounds, who might not have the social capital and connections more well-off graduates can use.”

While the NUS welcomed “more flexibility and choice for students”, the union was concerned about the impact of year-round teaching “on the quality of teaching and academic support for all students given extra pressures on lecturers”, Ms Vieru added.

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