Research backs life in the fast lane

Staffordshire report says ‘fast-track’ students outperform their three-year counterparts and save money. John Morgan reports

Students enrolling on two-year degrees “perform better” than those on equivalent three-year courses, according to a study of Staffordshire University graduates.

The study, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, found that “fast-track degree” students outperformed those on three-year degrees “by an average of two thirds of a degree classification”.

It also estimates that two-year students are £20,000 better off, a calculation based on adding tuition-fee savings to the average new graduate salary over one year.

Despite the findings, the study says university staff “remain anxious about the perceived market value of fast-track degrees”.

Steve Wyn-Williams, director for academic development at Staffordshire, called for universities to be allowed to charge higher tuition fees for fast-track degrees, warning that at present institutions struggled to make them financially viable.

The findings follow a call for more two-year degrees by Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary, in his annual grant letter to Hefce last month.

Reaffirming government plans for shorter degrees outlined in the recent higher education framework, Lord Mandelson said there should be “more programmes, such as foundation and fast-track degrees, that can be provided full time in two years”.

Staffordshire is one of seven universities selected by the Government to pioneer fast-track degrees as part of Hefce’s flexible learning pathfinder programme.

The results of the Staffordshire research, led by Peter Davies, director of the Institute for Education Policy Research, will be presented today at a meeting chaired by the Higher Education Academy and attended by representatives of Hefce and the Government.

Based on student questionnaires and comparisons of degree results, the study says two-year students are “no more likely than those on the three-year degree to adopt a ‘surface’ or memorising approach to their studies”.

It also finds that “students on fast-track degrees report the same level of part-time work as students on three-year degree programmes during main teaching semesters”.

Using a 15-point scale to rate module marks, it found fast-track students outscored their three-year counterparts by 9.8 to 7.6 in year-one modules and 10.2 to 8.3 on year-two modules.

Dr Williams said: “There are a lot of myths around two-year degrees and as a university that prides itself on successfully delivering and growing our fast-track provision, we are delighted to be able to set the record straight.

“That said, under the current system of funding and caps on recruitment, universities struggle to make two-year degrees financially viable and this has to be weighed up against the cost benefits to students.

“If universities were allowed to charge a higher annual tuition fee for fast-track degrees, the financial viability of these degrees would be substantially enhanced and they could be marketed as a ‘premier route’ that would allow students to differentiate themselves by their aptitude and commitment to learning, as well as reducing their costs.”

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