A committee of vice-chancellors and principals, chaired by Lord Flowers, is now looking at the structure of the academic year and at ways of ensuring that quality learning remains available in an age of mass access to higher education.
It is here that the University of Buckingham can contribute: as Britain's only independent university, we have pioneered the two-year degree over the past 17 years.
Why did we introduce it? Buckingham receives no direct funding from the Government. At other universities, student fees only cover a small part of the real costs. A mandatory grant is available from local authorities, but we had to find ways of minimising the gap in costs between Buckingham and other universities. We chose two-year, rather than three-year courses.
This means that more students move through the university in a shorter space of time, with facilities being used more intensively. The academic year at Buckingham lasts 40 weeks: as a result, we have approximately the same number of teaching weeks in two years as conventional universities have in three. The academic year starts in January and is divided into four terms. In effect, the long vacation has been abolished.
The launch of the two-year degree in 1976 was greeted with considerable scepticism. The main objections were that the academics would not have time to carry out research and write their books, that the absence of long holidays would provide insufficient time for students to reflect or read widely, and that additional student activities would be non-existent. In short, Buckingham would simply provide a machine to achieve a degree as quickly as possible with none of the broader advantages offered by other universities. It was also suggested that it would not be possible to achieve the same standards in a shorter time.
Most of those fears have proved groundless. External examiners, distinguished teachers and scholars from other universities, and an Academic Advisory Council ensure that we do maintain high standards. Academics are able to research, if they wish, by taking one term a year for this purpose. And for the students there are plenty of clubs and societies and increasing opportunities for sport. Of course, it is true that students have to keep up a disciplined and ordered flow of work to complete a two-year degree. But, provided they are organised, they can find plenty of time to 'mature'.
The university has also been successful in recruiting students who want to save time, such as mature students (mid-twenties and older), those wishing to enter professions such as law and accountancy, and overseas students from more than 70 countries. There is therefore a wide range of ages and nationalities, with a high level of motivation and morale. Shorter degree courses may be less appealing to school leavers, but they give students a chance to gain additional qualifications or skills, or to seek employment earlier.
Entry qualifications are lower than in state-maintained universities - but the gap is closing. The Buckingham figure of 14-16 A-level points should be compared with the 17.9 points average for all Ucca applicants. This is not surprising when one considers that highly motivated mature students may not have achieved A-levels at an earlier age, and that many overseas students are less well-qualified in A-levels than their British counterparts.
Buckingham students seem to start from a generally lower base than elsewhere, but have to reach the same standards as their contemporaries in a significantly shorter time. So, to succeed, Buckingham has to provide substantially more 'added value' than other universities.
The test is performance. Buckingham's drop-out rates appear to be similar to other universities: some 15 per cent fail to complete their studies successfully. As for degree performance, there are a few firsts and some upper seconds, but the centre of performance is in lower seconds with a substantial falling off into thirds and passes. That is not bad, given the fairly low A-level scores of some of our students. Degree results of older students are usually better than those of younger ones.
To simplify the picture, home and other European Community students are paying for the added value that they get from a shorter course and the overseas students are paying both for that and for the cost benefit of paying full fees and living costs for one year less than they would at any other British university.
Our experience of the two-year degree shows that there are essential pre-conditions. The most overwhelming of these is the level of personal attention that each student must receive to succeed. This presupposes a good ratio of staff to students: ours is 1 to 11, which is better than elsewhere.
Extra resources are therefore necessary to ensure that special attention is available to students. Each student has a personal tutor for the two years, and has to attend tutorials - which consist of small groups - and lecture sessions. The small and intimate character of the university, with 900 students and a committed staff, helps the atmosphere of personal attention. Indeed, Buckingham tries to interview each applicant to identify those whose A-level performance does not reflect their intellectual potential.
The two-year degree will not answer everyone's problems. But it has been going long enough to enable us to claim that it can be a valuable and useful addition to the range of choice available. Moreover, our experience demonstrates that there are positive ways for universities to make more efficient use of existing resources and facilities. By being prepared to be more flexible, we can provide the variety that will enable universities to satisfy the aspirations of people of all ages.
Sir Richard Luce is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham.