Why I ...I think degrees could be completed in just one year

December 6, 2002

Our university system remains medieval; our teaching practices at best belong to the 19th century. Years of modularisation and semesterisation, e-learning and best practice have not changed what must be changed.

Before anyone decides to allow today's educational dinosaurs to force young people into even more debt - Stop. Look. Listen. Think. Learn.

It takes three years (four in Scotland) to produce a graduate. In each year, students will be taught for 20-24 weeks. People in the real world work 44 weeks a year. Most people in the real world are contracted to work 32-45 hours a week. But ask students how much time they put into their studies and most will say, "Oh, about 15-20 hours a week." What happens to the other hours students lose each week and the weeks they lose each year?

A little calculation shows that most students on most courses could do their entire degree within a year, full time.

There is an argument that students need time to think through the implications and correlations of their learning. In practice, this is often time spent forgetting what was taught several years before.

For argument's sake, let's stick with the sloth-like three-year teaching system. The three years a person spends studying for a degree are lost from the end of her working life - a graduate's highest earning years.

Suddenly, the debt of £12,000 from taking the three-year degree becomes pin-money. A graduate at the end of her professional working life can expect to be earning, today, about £40,000-£50,000 a year. Our medieval approach to learning costs graduates more than £100,000 in forgone earnings in addition to related loss of pension and savings.

UK universities can put on a brave face and stare down at the government, proffering cheap baubles of honorary doctorates and fellowships, but take a look around: it's a big bad world out there. The UK once had a world-leading shipbuilding industry, mined the most coal in Europe and led the world's software industry. Economic forces and modernisation pressures from overseas competition bring down systems that are self-feeding and self-important.

There is still time to move before the momentum of educational change blowing from Australia, the US and continental Europe knocks down our straw houses. Academics are rightly fearful for their jobs and salaries. What better way to guarantee both than by making their primary work, education, the most efficient and fastest in the world?

Universities scrabble over a drying waterhole when there are reservoirs of income out there from people willing to spend money to get in and out as quickly as possible. All the students I have talked to from many universities would love to learn quicker and start earning earlier. They would pay large sums for that, too: £10,000 to £20,000.

I just hope that nobody from the government reads this article. If the government found out that we cost it so much money because we are sluggish and inefficient, that it could remove almost all teaching support monies, that it could then divert the remaining resources to supporting the poor, then it might just force us to change our ways.

If we don't change, we'll fade away like other bygone industries.

Here is an exam question that has slipped down a time warp from the year 2020: Sony International University (London, Edinburgh and Cardiff campuses) 21st-Century History - Level 2 1. (20 marks) Discuss, with reference to other evolutionary extinction events such as those of dinosaurs, steam trains, shipbuilders and coal miners, the forces that led to the collapse of the medieval university education system in the United Kingdom between the years 2005 and 2010.

John N. Sutherland
Reader in curriculum development
University of Abertay Dundee

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