Education: Foot down for the accelerated degree: Two-year courses suit mature students who want a quick route back to work, says Ngaio Crequer

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JOHN VEASEY is one of 35 students at Hertfordshire University taking an accelerated degree, which means that his course lasts two years instead of the conventional three.

'I was a beef farmer for 10 years,' says John, aged 35. 'But BSE finished all of that. I decided I needed a complete change of career. The law has always interested me, and now I want to become a solicitor.'

He could not find a course in Lincolnshire, where he lives, but his parents, who live in Hertfordshire, spotted the advertisement for the course at the university, formerly Hatfield Polytechnic. He stays with his parents during the week and goes back to Lincolnshire at the weekends, to be with his wife and 10-year-old son.

The course is one of 10 pilot two-year courses launched in 1992. They are mainly aimed at mature students who want to change direction, or have been away from work caring for their families and want to make up for lost time.

The two-year law degree at Hertfordshire is approved by the Bar and the Law Society and the students follow exactly the same course as three-year students. But while traditional students study for 30 weeks in the year and have a long summer vacation, those on accelerated courses cram in 45 weeks.

'The vast majority of the students are mature, and have been in employment,' says Philip Parry, head of the Centre for Legal Studies. 'They are very bright, and they have to be, to cope with the pressure of assimilating all this knowledge at such speed.

'They are highly motivated and they are very demanding of the teachers because they work like mad.'

Among John's fellow students are a redundant airline pilot, a stockbroker, a television cameraman, and several teachers and business people. Many already have degrees, so are ineligible for grants from local education authorities. They must pay fees of pounds 750 a year, as well as support themselves.

John has received financial support from his family and has 'an understanding bank'. 'I liked the idea of a two-year course because it meant less time out of the job market, and would cost less than a three-year course,' he says.

Mr Parry says, 'We interview every student we offer a place to and we do some very careful counselling right at the start. The aim is to get through to them just how hard it is going to be.

'The majority look at the seven weeks' holiday a year, and because they have been in work, they think it is generous. But studying at this pace is very draining. By the end of June they are tired and they have just one week to recuperate.'

Students are able to transfer to the three-year course if they feel they cannot cope. A couple have; and some have changed from the three-year to the two-year.

Eva Greenspan, who is in her mid-forties, is a councillor in Barnet, north London. Her experience as a former vice-chairman of the planning committee gave her the desire to study law, and specialise in planning matters.

'It has been tough but it is very enjoyable. I have three children, one doing A-levels, and she and I have been studying together. When I graduate I will have two to three weeks' break and then I will start at law school.'

They miss out on the student social life. There is no time for the pub or partying. 'But these students want to get a degree, and a good one,' says Mr Parry. 'They need to, because of the job market. But they are not dull, far from it.'

For the staff, teaching is entirely voluntary during the summer semester, but no one has refused to join in. For Mr Parry it meant taking his holiday in Nepal in January, rather than the summer.

But are two-year degrees just a way for government to provide education on the cheap? 'Some of the older universities make comparisons with battery hens,' says Neil Buxton, the vice-chancellor. 'But the students are demanding these courses, and they do extremely well.'

(Photograph omitted)