Universities told to curb four-year degrees: Funding to be geared to output of students

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PAYMENT by results is being introduced for English universities in an attempt to contain costs by curbing the growth of four-year degrees.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is urging universities to promote two- year diplomas and has warned institutions that they will be penalised financially if they introduce more four-year degrees. From next year, funds for teaching would be geared to the 'output' of graduates, it said. The quicker students pass through the system the more funding a university stands to gain.

Later this week, the council will announce a pounds 3.5m funding package to encourage more two- year diploma courses. Vocational courses in science, technology and engineering will be funded at 46 universities.

The standard English three- year degree is out of step with the rest of Europe, where university courses are usually at least four years. Fast-track two-year degrees, such as those at the private University of Buckingham, are seen by most academics as suitable for a minority, mainly mature students.

Ministers have been alarmed by the increase in the average length of degree courses, caused partly by a switch from two-year diploma courses to degrees and partly by an increase in the number of longer degree courses in engineering, physics and mathematics. The proportion of UK students on four-year courses at the 'old' universities rose from 23 per cent to 27 per cent between 1985 and 1991.

A spokesman for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals attacked the move. 'On the Continent, universities acknowledge that they need more than three years to reach degree standard with a broader system of education post-16.'

In Scotland, where the four- year honours degree is standard, universities fear the courses are threatened although the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council said that the matter was not under consideration.