Honours degrees: Does three go into two?

The Government is encouraging universities to cram honours degrees into two years. But how many students want to study more quickly? And would the degrees be worth having, anyway? Lucy Hodges reports
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For An Ngugen, 21, a two-year degree would have been an attractive option. A graduate of Bournemouth University, where she studied advertising and marketing, she believes that it would have been relatively simple to have compressed her three years into two. It would certainly have saved her money. As it is, she has student loans of £14,000 that need to be paid off.

"Being at university in Bournemouth was really expensive," she says. "Doing a degree in two years would have suited someone like me. I knew what I wanted to do. My degree was simply a means to an end and I could have done it quite easily in two years."

But not everyone agrees with her (see box, right). For every young - and not so young - person who sees the benefit of taking two rather than three years over a degree, there are several who believe that university is as much about growing up, having a good time and getting away from home.

The Government is actively trying to prod universities into trying out the idea of compressing a three-year honours degree into two years. (This is distinct from the two-year foundation degrees aimed to provide people with the vocational skills needed for particular jobs.) Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, explains the rationale thus: "By the year 2012 half of UK jobs will require graduates so we need to look at more flexible and innovative ways to make sure that as many people take up the opportunity of higher education as possible."

The two-year degree idea made an appearance in the Government's White Paper on higher education in 2003. Following that, the Higher Education Funding Council invited bids from universities willing to undertake pilot programmes into how to provide more flexible learning routes. That could entail studying in blocks, with the ability to stop and start, without having to repeat a course; accelerated study, with a different pattern of terms and shorter holidays (the two-year degree); and flexible models of part-time study (by distance learning or a mix of distance, face-to-face and workplace study).

Five universities are carrying out pilots - Derby, Leeds Metropolitan, Northampton, Staffordshire and the Medway partnership of Kent, Greenwich and Canterbury Christ Church. Some of these are experimenting with two-year degrees; others are not. Kent, for example, is looking at awarding credits to people at work that could be used towards a degree.

Staffordshire, however, is running a raft of two-year degrees from this September in English, philosophy, geography, law and product design. "We looked at running a fast-track two-year degree in geography two years ago," says Steve Wyn Williams, director for academic development. "But we didn't run it. The time wasn't right. We advertised it but we didn't get many applications."

Now, it seems, the time is more right. Part of the reason is the advent of top-up fees this autumn which are concentrating the minds of everyone, the universities, politicians and young people themselves. Although Staffordshire is not experiencing a downturn in applications - in fact, numbers are up - it believes it has to look at the long-term. "Studying all year round will become a reality soon because students will demand it," says Wyn Williams. "Also we are a university that is seeking to widen participation. We have a mission to enable all those student who wish to study to do so."

The University of Northampton is launching a two-year degree in management from this September. Derby is compressing degrees in three programmes into two years - its BA in business studies, its Bsc in earth sciences and its combined honours degrees on the Buxton campus, which include subjects such as hospitality and tourism. "We're doing it because we feel it will broaden our offering in the marketplace and make the university appeal to a wider range of students, especially those who want to get a degree quickly or are worried about debt," says Andrew Rothwell, who is heading up the programme. "We don't expect it to be anything other than a small part of our provision."

Before Derby embarked on change it did some market research into what students wanted and found that there was strong support for two-year degrees from mature students, who wanted to get a degree quickly. But younger students were not so keen; they preferred the three-year degree and the long summer breaks. The two-year degrees mean students working over the long summer vacations just as they do at Buckingham, the only private university in the UK that has been going for 30 years and the only other university to offer two-year degrees. But, unlike Buckingham, the publicly-funded universities are not planning to have students studying taught courses over the summer. The business students will be studying via e-learning, the earth science students will be doing block study and field work and the Buxton students will be doing a blend of e-learning and other modes.

One of the problems with the change is staff contracts. The Higher Education Funding Council is not paying the universities any more per year to teach students on these courses, so universities are not able to pay staff for doing more hours. Thus the Government is getting the students to degree level more cheaply. That must be one of the attractions of two-year degrees to the Treasury.

For this and other reasons the compressed degrees have plenty of critics. According to Roger Kline, head of the universities department at the lecturers' union, Natfhe, the idea fails to acknowledge the importance of developing critical and analytical skills while studying. "Reducing study time may diminish the degree experience by replacing considered study with intensive cramming. This would not develop the skills we seek from graduates. We do not believe that, for the overwhelming majority of students, a two year degree will do anything other than devalue the worth of a degree."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, agrees. Two-year degrees would diminish the university experience, she says, adding: "Staff have seen their workloads increase massively over the last couple of decades and these proposals will do little to alleviate any concerns that their workloads are going to be seriously addressed."

This is not the first time that two-year degrees have been mooted. In 1993, Lord Flowers, former vice-chancellor of the University of London, proposed accelerated degrees. Pilots were started but did not lead anywhere. "I am sceptical whether this is a runner," says David Robertson, professor of public policy at Liverpool John Moores University. "It has been tried before. The University of California looked at it over 20 years ago. You can't mandate students to study over the summer. I don't think the market is there."

Roger Brown, vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, is equally sceptical. "This is a good idea in principle," he says. "But it is damned difficult to implement in practice."

The reality is that the only universities to be considering accelerating the three-year honours degree are new universities, mostly former polytechnics. Pre-1992 universities are not touching them. "How can these degrees be properly funded when Hefce is not putting in the same amount of money?" asks Professor Susan Bassnett, pro vice- chancellor of Warwick University. Bassnett and other critics are also worried about how the two-year degrees will fit in with the Bologna process that is attempting to harmonise degrees across Europe by establishing a template of a three year first degree and a one or two year Masters.

"I assume that the Government has considered the consequences of two year degrees for the credibility of the English degree system in the European higher education area," says Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency. "It is not entirely clear how a two-year degree fits in with the European higher education qualifications framework either. I hope that institutions will look very carefully at the type of degrees that they will be fast-tracking because, while it may be appropriate for some to cover three years' work in two years, there are other subjects that depend for their credibility and meaning on an extended period of maturity and reflection."

In the end it will be for the market to decide, says Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, who believes that talk about students needing time to think and mature is "largely a load of rubbish". At the moment many spend a lot of time relaxing in the pub and doing not very much. It could be educationally better for students to have to work consistently hard for two years.

What the students think

Harry Curran, 22, history student, Edinburgh University

"I put a high value on the social aspect of university, so I would not go for this. I try to do work experience in the summer to improve my job prospects. How would I do this on a two-year degree?"

Gemma Jane Ogden, 22, third year English student, York University.

"I don't think I would like to study my degree over two years. I could definitely do the work in two years but being at university is about the overall experience. Two years is not enough to grow up away from home. I am on the university's sailing and windsurfing team and I would not have been able to devote much time to that if I had done my degree in a shorter time."

Tom Marzec-Manser, 22, fourth year international relations student, Leeds University.

"I extended my degree to four years because I went to Russia for a year to learn Russian, so I would not have liked to make my degree shorter. And financially I need to spend the summer working to earn money so that I can fund my studies during the year." LH

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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