Gordon Marsden: The Tories’ pitch for two-year degrees is more of a PR initiative than a holistic programme for change

Posted On: 
11th January 2018

This simplistic pitch for two-year degrees shows ministers are more interested in their own PR than in building a model that works, writes Gordon Marsden

Credit: 
PA Images

Accelerated degrees fitting three years into two have always been with us – often crafted closely to specific needs of individual HE institutions. But having opened the door to expansion of them in the HE and Research Act, the government has now announced a major consultation.

Conservative ministers find themselves in a bind over HE – especially in terms of reconciling expansion and social mobility. They failed to connect with young people during the election period and subsequently are divided in the Cabinet on remedial measures to take forward Higher Education.

Their competence has been severely shaken by the National Audit Office’s damning reports on the HE market and on untested expansion of alternative providers, whilst the ministers’ Student Loans Company’s fitness for purpose remains open to challenge, compounding failing thousands of students with overpayments with their sacking of their chief-executive, for allegedly speaking too much truth to the Treasury’s power. Meanwhile the review of HE funding which the prime minister promised at Tory conference has been parked and delayed.

During the Bill, we talked about the importance of making the current system fit for the 21st Century. Accelerated degrees might play a useful part in a more flexible HE system at all ages. However, as my colleague Wilf Stevenson said in the Lords, this can only be as part of a wider overhaul.

I have emphasised time and again government’s need to facilitate this for work-life balance and the progression needed to benefit our economy and the life chances of students. This must involve looking at credit transfer and flexible courses and urgent action to address the catastrophic fall in part-time learning since 2010. Unfortunately the government’s pitch for accelerated degrees seems more like a PR initiative than a holistic programme for fundamental change.

The result of the government’s HE funding changes in 2012 – including the tripling of tuition fees – have, according to the Sutton Trust’s recent report ‘Fairer Fees’, meant the average debts for students in England are £46,000. Student fees in the UK are ten times higher than the European average and twice as high as the US.

Add to that the 56% drop in part‐time students in England in the last six years. Researchers at Wonkhe estimated there has been a 47% decrease in part-time entrants from low participation areas between 2011/12 and 2015/16, hitting older, especially disadvantaged students, hardest.

That is why increasing options is vital. But all government have done is to commit to another increase in tuition fees by allowing HE providers to charge more per year for delivering accelerated degrees.

This simplistic assertion that accelerated fees means a cut in students’ debt hides an ulterior motive. Wedded as they are to an outdated market driven Thatcherite view, ministers pin their hopes on a rapid expansion of new providers, charging these higher fees on a 2-year basis. All around them however the threats to our existing world class HE institutions from the uncertainties of Brexit are piling up. Alternative providers are not a quick-fix – they must meet the needs of students and the public good.

These new degrees would only be available to students able to study all year round. This has major implications for access and participation (which is already faltering under this government) – not part-timers. Critics have already pointed out the danger of squeezing three years into two omitting personal development opportunities or participating in extra-curricular activities and volunteering.

The government has given little thought to the impact on staff workload of accelerated degrees. But UCU have rightly raised the concern that these changes add yet more pressure on their members without much immediate or direct benefit for them. This is at a time when they believe they get a raw deal on full time contracts, pay increases and progression, as well as possible new unfavourable USS pension proposals.

Issues around short-term contracts, extra bureaucracy and guarantees of quality might all have to be addressed. To have a model that doesn’t produce a narrowing of achievement by skills, age or social class, we need a consultation based on evidence-driven policy and modelling, not one that blithely assumes a compressed two-year degree is the way forward. 

 

Gordon Marsden is Labour MP for Blackpool South and Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills