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Ministers must make the educational arguments for two-year degrees

4 min read

Two-year degrees could make a crucial difference to those put off by the huge burden of debt. But to make them work we need a radical shift in attitudes, writes Baroness Garden

For longer than anyone can remember, a first degree was awarded at the end of a three, or sometimes four-year period of study at a university. Each course comprised three terms of eight to ten weeks, with a very long break between the end of each year and the beginning of the next. The final term of the third year was taken up with “finals”, with the results published in the summer.

This pattern was set when we lived in a very different world and the shape of the courses had little impact on anyone other than the tiny percentage of young students for whom going to university was an option. I was one of fewer than 200,000 undergraduates in 1962 who, as a result of the Education Act 1962, paid no tuition fees and – for those who qualified – there were pretty generous, means-tested ‘maintenance grants’. A friend of mine who got a full grant (£100 a term in 1966) told me he had never been so well off!

The model originally set by Oxbridge was adopted by the “new” universities that opened during the 1960s, the colleges of advanced technology which became universities in the late sixties and the large number of polytechnics and colleges that became universities in the early 1990s. By 2016, there were 1.5 million undergraduates attending over 160 higher education institutions.

Modern undergraduates now pay their own tuition fees and living expenses, funded by a student loan which is in excess of £50,000 and repaid in instalments once the graduate earns more than £21,000 a year.

Last month the government issued a consultation document “Accelerated Degrees”, as part of its policy objective of dramatically increasing the number of undergraduates taking a two-year course. The consultation is informed by a call for evidence which, surprisingly, generated responses from only a quarter of HEIs. In the preamble to the consultation questions, the key attractions of accelerated degrees are cited as: reduced overall costs for students and taxpayers; increased value for money, and faster entry to the labour market for graduates.

Although the accelerated courses “particularly appeal” to mature students and “appeal” to younger students and international students, the government estimates that only 2,500 students were enrolled on accelerated courses (0.00017%). They are offered at only fourteen HEIs in the UK, none of them in the Russell Group.

We need to increase the appeal of getting a degree for groups that are currently under-represented, in part by reducing the huge burden of debt with which new graduates are saddled. An accelerated degree, with reduced tuition fees and only two years of post-18 study, could make the crucial difference to someone with good A levels who is considering career options.

Producing graduates after two years will also increase the supply of candidates for jobs and might ameliorate the shortages that might well follow our exit from the EU.

However, while the consultation has plenty to say about the length, and width, of accelerated degrees, little is said about the quality. The University of Buckingham, the first private university, advertises a very wide range of two-year degrees and promotes itself as the market leader. This, in itself, might have shaped the responses (and lack of them) to the call for evidence.

The golden age of a leisurely three-year degree, with time to read around the subject and opportunities to take part in all manner of outside activities, was perhaps never quite that idyllic. But we now have a much more utilitarian approach to getting a degree.

We will never again be able to roll out the old Oxbridge style of study, with a personal tutor, small lecture groups and time to punt in those long, hot summer afternoons – probably watching ‘Oxbridge Revisited’ or reading ‘Porterhouse Blue’ is the closest modern undergraduates will come to what it was like in the sixties.

However, if “accelerated degrees” are to increase in number – and are to be seen as having equal status to a three-year degree – they must be embraced by the Russell Group among others. That, however, will mean a very radical shift in attitudes: the needs of students must trump those of the institutions and their staff.

What the government needs to do next is to make the educational arguments for two-year degrees. 


Baroness Garden is a Liberal Democrat peer 

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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Garden - Why maths matters – with puzzles by Dr Tom Crawford