Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Two year degrees: Opening Pandora’s box

Vince Cable, Business Secretary, has re-opened the debate on the purpose and economic benefits of the two year degree course:

‘Two-year university degrees, more part-time courses and more students living with their parents while they study will be proposed by the coalition Government as it begins the task of cutting the £155bn deficit.’ The Independent

Students can be incredibly industrious. Creative, excited, genuinely enthused about academic rigour and the desire to delve into previously unthought-of scholarly principles. A three year degree allocates a relatively small amount of time during the working week to formally defined lecture/seminar sessions with the onus being on the mature and intelligent student to take up the rest of their free time to fit in adequate outside reading as well as co-curricular activities.

Then there is the time that extra-curricular activities take up – something that I hope we all agree is an essential part of the student experience and thus the formation of a well rounded and employable graduate.

But what about the rest of the time? The hours spent procrastinating; of staring into space and failing to adequately make use of project deadlines? Careers services are reportedly more underused than ever – which suggests that although many immensely useful free courses such as ‘how to manage your project time effectively’ are being ignored. Could this be an indication that pressure to perform is too lax at our leading HEI’s?

This could be the unannounced benefit of the two year degree. Students arguably perform better under pressure - the logic following the ‘there’s less time to procrastinate so I won’t’ theme. And why shouldn’t they? Will two year degrees see an increase in the power and utilisation of the careers centre? I think it might.

‘Teaching qualifications’ for academics have helped to create a behavioural expectation in students that once fees are paid then a degree is almost certain: the mentality of the spoon-fed GCSE seems to be have permeated expectation and become abundant in many universities that I have had the fortune to observe.

Squeezing a three year course into two years we may increase project management efficiency in students (perfect differentiation criteria for the hotly contested graduate placements) but at the cost to the student experience. University is about enjoying yourself: joining crazy student societies; going on protest marches and getting drunk on ridiculously cheap vodka. Of course I’m using stereotypes but the point still stands – co-curricular activities shape us for the rest of our lives. This is a core part of the two year degree that Mr Cable doesn’t seem to have considered.

But they will be better for student debt, better for the economy, better for the HEI’s and better for the job market. May not be better for the ‘enjoyment’ of university but is that something that we can all live without? The question returns again: what is a university for?

‘I work better under pressure’ the mantra that we all hear regularly from the student who leaves work to the last minute. I’d be careful to open that box if I were you. You may just get what you wish for.

6 comments:

Jonathan Meakin said...

Two year degrees are, in my opinion, a very good idea. They would reduce student debt and provide a much more focused working environment for students.

Adam D'Souza said...

I think I've suitably outlined my position at www.twitter.com/adamdsouza, but for the record I am strongly in opposition to two-year degrees. Globally, most countries follow the Americans (four-year degrees). Watering down our degrees to two years might increase 'productivity' or 'focus' but would significantly de-value them in the eyes of countries which we will be relying on in the next 50 years, especially since our economy is moving in the direction of being a global service provider and thought leader.

John E Bevan said...

Rare but agree with Adam. Look at Chinese who are rolling out Engineering Grads on a conveyor belt of short degree programmes and enter the market underqualified and inexperienced and therefore valued beneath buying in technical expertise from Europe and the States 4-year MEng grads who take senior roles. If the gvt want to reform education and skills which is desperately needed to make the UK more competitive, it should start with entirely useless A level and GCSE qualifications followed by half the country, chop second rate non-vocational degrees and encourage universities to properly build courses around private sector requirements as more common in Germany, France. There are vastly underskilled people working at senior level in UK top-tier firms who are being replaced by better value and business-educated French, German, Americans, Japanese with sharpened technical and vocational skills. Merely turning out more graduates or compressing more study into shorter time spans is a tactical initiative not a structural change capable of delivering significant revision in the way private sector currently sources talent. That said, finding a balance between quality of life and economic competitiveness is tough. The gvt needs to look at the UK's chronic underinvestment in infrastructure, our consumer-obsessed society, utter market liberation and make some tough choices. We'll see more tax money exiled in the next 15 years mostly to Asia than ever before, and the gvt needs to seriously address a lack of long-term policy and planning. Two-year degrees isn't it and it's not in my opinion the right starting place.

Sarah Flynn said...

Of course we already have two year degrees for those students who are at university for the express aim of getting a qualification for employment and not wanting/willing/able to engage in the 'whole' student experience - it's called the foundation degree.

Years of experience of the similar associate degree in the US and Australia have shown that this is right option for some students - and that the HE sector needs to be clear about product differentiation, which of our products aims to do what and not to base that decisions on some artificial academic / vocational divide but rather to focus on what the student is trying to acheive.

In my mind, the current portfolio of foundation degrees, honours degrees, masters degrees gives the spread of stopping off points needed for employment - and would agree with Adam above, that the discussion should be more about whether UK honours student should be following four year programmes.

nhj said...

Always good to read a well-written opposing view that makes me re-evaluate my own thoughts on the matter.

I think the debate, as with all that vaguely have a sniff of politics, is too broad. On the whole, I would disagree with the 2 year solution, however we can't just look at a "should we/shouldn't we" discussion, but mustlook instead at how we can do this and how we will measure success..

First we need some test cases to see if it would work as a selection choice for a number of students. Stakeholder engagement will be vital from all sites-private sector, students, parents etc. If this proves successful then look at widening the project's scope. Yes, these test cases could possibly be at a disadvantage, but I think that if we ask for applicants to volunter and take aeway the fees for them, we can compensate them for any possible risk.

The problem is that this is a political decision and what I say above would take 5-10 years of study and evaluation before anything can be done. How many parties will actually do something like that? Yes, Labour did it with SureStart, but I can't see many other decisions that they or many other governments have made that look at the long term with the possibility of an opposing party benefitting from their policy.

But like I said; it's Monday, I've not yet had my coffee and these thoughts are very "off the top of my head" so happy to have others show me where I'm wrong!

Either way, a very good post and an interesting read.

nhj said...

Always good to read a well-written opposing view that makes me re-evaluate my own thoughts on the matter.

I think the debate, as with all that vaguely have a sniff of politics, is too broad. On the whole, I would disagree with the 2 year solution, however we can't just look at a "should we/shouldn't we" discussion, but mustlook instead at how we can do this and how we will measure success..

First we need some test cases to see if it would work as a selection choice for a number of students. Stakeholder engagement will be vital from all sites-private sector, students, parents etc. If this proves successful then look at widening the project's scope. Yes, these test cases could possibly be at a disadvantage, but I think that if we ask for applicants to volunter and take aeway the fees for them, we can compensate them for any possible risk.

The problem is that this is a political decision and what I say above would take 5-10 years of study and evaluation before anything can be done. How many parties will actually do something like that? Yes, Labour did it with SureStart, but I can't see many other decisions that they or many other governments have made that look at the long term with the possibility of an opposing party benefitting from their policy.

But like I said; it's Monday, I've not yet had my coffee and these thoughts are very "off the top of my head" so happy to have others show me where I'm wrong!

Either way, a very good post and an interesting read.