Two-year degrees should be seen as stepping stones

December 10, 1999

Two-year degrees are back on the agenda. The appeal of this hardy perrenial is obvious: quick, cheap and designed to prepare large numbers for jobs at technician level where skill shortages often arise in the United Kingdom economy. Such qualifications could also help reconcile conflicting pressures to recruit more disadvantaged students and to cut drop-out rates.

So far so good. But we have been here before. The diploma of higher education was piloted and bombed in the 1970s. In the 1980s, plans for a two-year degree, floated in a Leverhulme report of which higher eduction minister Baroness Blackstone was co-author, foundered at least in part on Europe's unwillingness to recognise such short degrees. And we already have two-year qualifications in vocational areas, the Higher National Diploma, which do not recruit strongly.

Two-year qualifications work best where they are tied into university degree courses which offer automatic progression to those who succeed. This is how the French and the Americans have established their two-year qualifications and it is one of the ways universities in the UK have successfully used the HND to boost recruitment of less advantaged students.

On past experience then, the government is right to rebadge two-year qualifications as "degrees". But that will not be enough to make them popular. They should be designed explicitly as a stepping stone which either leads directly on to a full degree or can be banked against the time the holder wants to return. This kind of associate qualification could be a winner especially with older students embarking on higher education part-time. But it should be expected to increase, not reduce demand for honours degrees. Any idea the government may have of concentrating higher education expansion at this level can only be very short-term.

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