April 20, 2006

Two year degrees – here we go again

Writing about web page http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,,1756181,00.html

This one comes around every four or five years – jolly efficient way for students to get degrees, saves money, sweats the assets etc etc.

(I am of course behind the curve on this – THES has an editorial on this today (20 April) which makes the same point but more articulately)

So why is it that it never takes off then? Answer is broadly that it only works for a small percentage of students who want to study this way. The new fee regime may make it more attractive as an option but I doubt it. If two year degrees really were that popular then the University of Buckingham would be overrun with applicants and Foundation degrees would be heavily over-subscribed.

Still, a positive alternative for some but would be surprised if all five institutions were still offering three years from now. I just think that you lose something essential about the undergraduate experience by doing a degree this way.


- 19 comments by 4 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Robert O'Toole

    Are they any cheaper? £3000 a year cheaper? In which case one of the essential things missing is a chunk of the usual student debt. I bet there will be enough students for whom that will be an attractive prospect. Just another sign of the rapid market differentiation that is about to hit "the undergraduate degree business?

    20 Apr 2006, 15:41

  2. John Dale

    I just think that you lose something essential about the undergraduate experience

    But what? If two year degrees do gain some ground then those universities that don't want to offer them are going to have to be able to say something concrete about the advantages that three years brings. 50% more wisdom? 50% more hangovers?

    20 Apr 2006, 16:25

  3. As far as I can see, two-year degrees are being championed by the government as part of their agenda for sausage factory universities (you put students in and you get degrees out). It's also bad that money should be the imperative in people's decisions on what degree to take.

    20 Apr 2006, 16:30

  4. Robert O'Toole

    The common perception of what a year at university means:

    1. a specified number of modules, each containing…
    2. a specified number of lectures and seminars, and resulting in…
    3. a certain number of assessment activities (essays and exams), adding up to…
    4. a 2.1, and of course…
    5. a quantity of excessive behaviour, leading to…
    6. a consequent amount of debt.

    All of which could easily be compressed into two years, thus reducing element 6 of the equation. But we of course no that isn't true. We claim that the time spent between lectures and seminars, the holidays even, is really very important. It is the time in which the independent development of the student occurs. But does anyone else believe that story? For higher education as we know it to survive, we're going to have to find some really good way of making that notion less vague and more realistic.

    20 Apr 2006, 16:44

  5. But does anyone else believe that story? For higher education as we know it to survive, we're going to have to find some really good way of making that notion less vague and more realistic.

    Spot on. I suspect that many do not – Thatcher certainly didn't. In a two year model though it is pretty well impossible to escape from the crudely instrumental ('Sausage factory') view of HE. It is also harder to defend the three year model where there are ever fewer contact hours and actual teaching weeks (in Arts and Social Sciences) BUT I think we have to look at the totality of the student learning experience – part of that is about what happens in the classroom but a much larger part is about the related activities outside (from societies to volunteering to skills – not the bar).

    So, we need to define clearly what we mean by the student experience, develop a broader concept of student engagement with the University and then, bingo, sorted. Should only take an afternoon, I reckon.

    21 Apr 2006, 07:32

  6. Robert O'Toole

    "from societies to volunteering to skills" – problem is, these activities are voluntary. It is hard to convince poeople that they are paying for the opportunity to get experience through voluntary work! It is much easier to tell people that they are paying £3000 a year for a certain amount of laid on entertainment (er, i mean lectures).

    But I think it's not entirely impossible. Rob Johnson is promoting an interesting notion: "the Warwick Advantage" as a summation of the many valuable additional experiences and personal developments that doing a degree at Warwick provides. If we can make that much more tangible, then yes, bingo, sorted.

    21 Apr 2006, 09:37

  7. Robert O'Toole

    "many valuable additional experiences" – of course we also need to show that those experiences aren't additional, but core to a Warwick degree.

    21 Apr 2006, 11:05

  8. Dean McIlwraith

    I agree that the 'something' essential to the undergraduate experience would be a good thing to identify, qualify and perhaps make more accessible in order that Warwick doesn't loose its own essential something as the price war in HE hots up. But, Isn't the 'Warwick Advantage' or something similar what sells Warwick to prospective undergraduates in the first place? It's put across on open days, tours, in the prospectus, league tables, Warwick Blogs etc. The advantage might be more tangible for outsiders looking in than for the fish in the bubble.

    There's a sense that because students/parents/guardians/sponsors/pacts with the devil are now to start paying out £3000 pounds per year for the priviledge, the value of degrees is something that can finally be quantified. Not long ago, when UK/EU students rested on the £1000ish mark, was there no way to effectively do this? I think the issue of the value of a degree – say when weighing Arts v Sciences – has always been prey to crudely instrumental views from some sectors. The issue of one more year would be less of an issue if people could be persuaded, not necessarily in the Warwick Advantage, but in the University Advantage which is a three year Personal, Social, Academic, Emotional etc. course of events. Having said that, the structure of a BA doesn't seem much changed in at least a hundred years so perhaps change is called for?

    In the past, it's been HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) allocating the majority of funding for all degrees then the Universities allocating portions of the HEFCE allowance to departments in order that they could deliver the teaching and supervision necessary to bring undergraduates from induction to Graduation. I'm not totally sure how the new system will work at the institutional and departmental levels but it seems likely that this model won't change, just that the lions share of funding comes from the private individual rather than HEFCE. Was/is HEFCE's view of HE crudely instrumental? Why is the private individual's prone to be so? I think that, as much as being about the Warwick Advantage, the agenda should include a reflection on questions like those posed by Rick Trainor (Principle of KCL) when he first arrived:

    [...] a strong feeling that British universities – and indeed the world's universities more generally – are at a turning point characterised by a confused but ever louder debate about their primary objectives. For example, should higher education give priority to the examination credentials of applicants or to widening participation from previously excluded social groups? Should university teaching emphasise understanding of scholarly disciplines or skills transferable to the world of work? Also, should universities give primacy to ‘pure' research or to discoveries directly useful to the private sector and to government?

    21 Apr 2006, 11:09

  9. Robert O'Toole

    The text of Rick's lecture is available online, and well worth reading: link

    21 Apr 2006, 11:15

  10. The argument about instrumentalism is always an interesting one. Yes, funders, govt etc have long seen HE in simple technocratic and economic payback terms but the change in student attitudes – ie what do I HAVE to do to get a 2i and how are you Prof X going to help me achieve it so I can get a good job – has taken place over the past 20 years or so. This has less to do with fees I think than the change in societal attitudes to the nature of the economy, work and unemployment which started in 1979 (or arguably in 1973, with the oil crisis).

    21 Apr 2006, 14:20

  11. We certainly will have our work cut out in the next few years as we try to convince all the stakeholders of Higher Education that what we do, and how we do it, are valuable. Like the rest of the education sectors, we are being scrutinised by 'bean counters' in that endless drive for 'value for money'.

    The most difficult message to get across is that 'education', 'learning' and 'development' don't come in neat packages that can be weighed, measured and counted. It was just a short time ago, in historical terms, that a generation measured its worth in terms of 'character', 'education' and 'experience'.

    I am one of those people who will strain every sinew in my body to resist the 'manufactured' degree course, however it is constituted. Yet we also need to clarify precisely what constutes what we might call the Warwick Advantage. Alongsde the phrases that students will mention when they are here (having a good time, making friends, preparing for employment,...), we need to incorporate what our alumni say in their reflections later (evolution of ideas, development of self, critical skills, confidence..) and we need to pin down what Warwick does that is distinctive.

    And, for the record: two year degrees? It makes me grimace to read that the government's justification for them would be to reduce student debt – a phenomenon they worsened. The logic of their argument is, well, why not one year degrees (cut out the holidays AND the weekends), and forget the digestion, circulation, reformulation, challenge and revision of ideas altogether.

    And then, by the same logic, better legislate in favour of hunting foxes since there are so many of the blighters running about now the hounds have gone…

    21 Apr 2006, 18:31

  12. Vivek Hajarnavis

    Whilst it seems like a good idea to offer a two year degree option, I feel that the quality – both in terms of education and experience will not be able to match that offered by a traditional three (or four) year degree. Other contributors have mentioned the experience part. With regards the education quality – two year degree courses will remove the period in which academic staff conduct the bulk of their research. I assume therefore that this type of course would be taught by teachers rather than researchers, meaning that the material delivered may not necessarily reflect the current state of the art. This will be particularly problematic in science and technology related subjects. Or does the government propose that research output should be maintained alongside what looks like an increased teaching load?

    I personally do very little teaching, but where I do I feel that my main contribution is highlighting new trends, techniques and technologies – ideas all drawn from work on my doctorate. If on the other hand, I was asked to teach the same course without conducting any reasearch then the material would (at best) be drawn from textbooks published in the last three years, some of which describe ideas which are about 10 years old. Is teaching the scientists and engineers of the future old material the way forward? I don't think so.

    22 Apr 2006, 13:03

  13. "Still, a positive alternative for some but would be surprised if all five institutions were still offering three years from now. I just think that you lose something essential about the undergraduate experience by doing a degree this way."

    I think that's it. University is about growing up. Sure, in 'the olden days' you'd be grown up by the age of 12 after 4 years working down a mine but now we spend so much time getting to grips with the (ridiculously complex) world we live in that even two years on top of a load of education isn't really enough. 4 year courses FTW, if you ask me.

    22 Apr 2006, 21:44

  14. I agree entirely with the growing up/maturing argument. The difficuly with this line though is that, to critics, it makes university sound like an extremely expensive finishing school.

    Maturing time is needed but the argument has to be about what happens during the non-teaching periods.

    23 Apr 2006, 06:48

  15. Maturing time is needed but the argument has to be about what happens during the non-teaching periods.

    Earning money to suplement the pittance the government lends us to cover living costs.

    23 Apr 2006, 11:59

  16. And getting insanely DRUNK!!!!! HAHAHAHA falls over in drunken mess

    23 Apr 2006, 14:41

  17. Vivek

    "Earning money to suplement the pittance the government lends us to cover living costs."

    Exactly – arguably, finding and doing suitable vacation work is as much of a maturing experience as that gained during term time.

    24 Apr 2006, 09:37

  18. Bestessaytips

    In my opinion the real reason of this situation is the dearth of financial resources at the universities; this step might be seen as an attempt to attract more international students to British shores. It is a well know fact that many international students are attracted by short duration of the courses in the United Kingdom as these courses are widely considered as more affordable.

    24 Apr 2006, 16:20

  19. The cost is a big issue, I guess, especially with top-up fees and the like coming in. Or for international students now.

    The thing about a university degree is that it kind of is an extremely expensive finishing school, with the added bonus of teaching you some fairly specialised things as well as how to (in no particular order):

    – write an essay on a subject you know nothing about
    – work to deadlines (or get around them)
    – balance work and social life

    The degree itself is the bit which means you know a lot/quite a lot/something about the subject it's in. But university also means you've gained a bit of independence as well.

    In Germany 5-year courses are the norm for Engineering, rather than 3 or 4 here. Where do we draw the line? Can you fit 3 years of information into 2 years? Or 4 into 3 even?

    25 Apr 2006, 20:41


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