The suggestion by Sir Ron Dearing that universities should offer exceptional sixth-formers the chance to take units of undergraduate courses while at school so they can complete their first degree in two years, has alarmed vice chancellors and lecturers' leaders. Schools, however, have welcomed the idea wholeheartedly.
Sir Ron's Review of Qualifications for 16 to 19-Year-Olds was welcomed by the Government this week. He recommends that schools and universities should take advantage of arrangements, such as associate student schemes, which give brighter pupils credit towards their undergraduate studies.
The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals said older institutions were already rejecting the proposal and Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said it had major implications for entrance to higher education.
"If you are going to do a university module at school you have already decided at 16 where you are going to go on to study," Mr Higgins said. "This has all sorts of intriguing implications. Does it mean for instance that pupils will select their school according to the relationship it has with a particular university?" Some newer universities such as Derby and De Montfort have already begun experimenting with the idea which raises the prospect of the brightest sixth-formers studying in the new rather than the old university sector.
Michael Brown, pro-vice chancellor of De Montfort, said early discussions were taking place with schools which could lead to a degree and a masters in three years for gifted students. Derby vice chancellor Roger Waterhouse said it was technically possible at his university to complete a degree in Japanese in two years thanks to a credit transfer scheme which had no lower age limit, but this would be the exception rather than the rule.
John Hogan, academic registrar at Durham University, said the prospect of an 18-year-old completing a degree in two years was "unwelcome". "Higher education has constructed a three-year degree syllabus assuming a body of knowledge based on the A-level syllabus," he said. "If this was eroded it would present us with great difficulties, particularly in the sciences. It is difficult to imagine that a two-year degree would offer the same intellectual or social content. We simply couldn't offer the same quality of product for employers or students."
Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said Sir Ron's proposal was unrealistic and would not be supported by the AUT.
The Secondary Heads Association, however, said it had long advocated undergraduate modules for the best sixth-formers. "We look foward to a breakdown in the age relatedness of A levels and degrees," said president John Dunford. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals said the prospect of two-year degrees raised serious issues of admissions policy, quality and standards.