FROM WHICH COURSE: AN INDEPENDENT EDUCATIONAL PUBLISHING MAGAZINE

The Big Question: Are two-year degrees the future of higher education?

Kate Hilpern looks at compressed honours degrees, and finds out whether three-year degrees are on their way out

For those of you who haven't come across it yet, The Big Question deals with a different educational issue in each edition of Which Course. It's a chance to read about the news stories that affect you and to hear both sides of the debate, and then you get the chance to make up your own mind.

How do these two-year degrees work?

The fast-track degree compresses a three-year degree into two years by typically extending the teaching by 10 weeks. These 10 weeks generally combine face-to-face and distance learning, taking place during the summer holiday. Fast-track degrees are not intended to replace traditional degree programmes but rather add to the options for students.

Does quicker mean more straightforward?

Two-year degrees are no easy option. Because you'll be studying the same amount of material as a traditional student, but in a shorter time, you'll need to be dedicated and organised.

When and why did they come in?

Five universities introduced the compressed honours degree courses in September last year. The move, which was first announced by Tony Blair in 2003, marked an effort to increase the proportion of people with higher education qualifications. The idea was to achieve this by offering a more flexible and cheaper way of studying a degree. Meanwhile, you only have to pay two years' tuition fees and can cut accommodation and living costs by up to a third. Blair's motivation also came from his desire to attract more overseas students to Britain.

Where and what can you study?

The two-year degree has been piloted at the universities of Staffordshire, Derby, Leeds Metropolitan, Northampton and the Medway Partnership in Kent. Subjects include geography, business studies, business management, accounting, finance, law, English, marketing, tourism and a range of joint-degree options.

Does fast-track learning exist anywhere else in the world?

Accelerated provision of degrees is common in the US, Australia and parts of Asia that have longer experience of tuition fees and modular courses.

Has there been any research into two-year degrees?

A report published by the Higher Education Academy and carried out by Sheffield Hallam Universit, came out in May. It found that students were generally very positive about two-year degrees, citing reduced costs and a quicker route to a job as the main benefits. The report also found that two-year degrees are valued by professional bodies ­ such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority ­ as well as employers. However, on a more negative note, the report found that universities have identified issues of staff workflow and administration. The Sheffield Hallam researchers concluded that the process of introducing two-year degrees is evolving.

YES

'Shorter degrees are one way of adapting study to suit different personal circumstances'

Bill Rammell, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education

Fast-track degrees are part of the way we will expand and broaden access to higher education; no one mould suits everyone. The fast-track degree pilots are a powerful example of how higher education institutions can offer innovative new programmes that meet the needs of students and fit better with their circumstances. Research published by the Higher Education Academy shows that fast-track degrees are working for students and provide a quality product valued not only by employers but professional bodies too.

Dr Ian Brooks, Dean of the University of Northampton's Business School

Two-year degrees can be very rewarding and can help differentiate you in highly competitive job markets. Students who successfully complete a two-year degree can clearly demonstrate they have the drive and dedication employers look for. Another direct benefit of this method of study is the opportunity to accelerate your career by moving into the graduate employment market ­ or postgraduate study ­ earlier. You can also reduce debts by paying only two years' tuition fees and cutting accommodation and living costs by up to a third, make up a year before or save a year after your degree, or even change your career while taking the minimum time out of employment.

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters

With the widening participation in higher education and increasing levels of student debt, it's inevitable that individuals will have different requirements in terms of flexibility. Shorter degrees are one way of adapting study to suit different personal circumstances, supporting the work/life balance and lifelong learning. As long as this reduced time does not affect degree quality, and if the student can demonstrate they have developed life and employability skills, there is no reason why recruiters will see two years as less valuable than three.

Daniela Santoro, 33, is studying a two-year degree in law at Staffordshire University

Two-year degrees are perfect for people like me. I'm aiming to become a barrister which is a long process, so doing the fast-track degree means I'll get there a year quicker. I'll also save money, as a two-year degree costs me £6,000 as opposed to £9,000. I think it will help me with employment too, because doing a two-year degree proves that you are committed and are able to work flat out. There's so much support from the university that if, for any reason, I did decide it was too much, I could always switch over to the three-year degree in September.

NO

'Trying to fit everything into two years will just diminish the experience'

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union

While we welcome more flexible approaches to higher education, we are concerned that trying to fit everything into just two years will diminish the whole university experience. University is about so much more than just getting students through their degree and out the other side. Worryingly, a lot of recent higher education policy seems much more concerned with the bottom line and treating students as commodities. 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. The industrial action we are taking is indicative of how bad things are at the moment.

Professor Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics

There are several problems with two-year degree programmes. Firstly, in subjects such as physics, students encounter exciting but challenging concepts, such as quantum mechanics. A thorough appreciation of these topics requires time. Secondly, degrees are best taught by people who are active in research ­ most academics set aside the summer for research. If they lose it to teaching, they will necessarily diminish their research capability. Thirdly, the rest of Europe is moving to longer periods of study. A move to two years would carry no weight across the rest of the continent and could result in a loss of confidence in the UK system.

Judy Johnson, 21, is studying a three-year BA in media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London

I think that a three-year course gives you more time to think about what your skills are and what careers are available to you afterwards. Most students still don't know exactly what they want to do after university. During a three-year course you also have the chance to experience university life, which is important as you can develop hobbies and interests that you might not be able to if you were to cram a degree into two years. Finally, it takes time to settle into university and develop friendships, and it's a growing-up period for most students.

Peter Reader, director of marketing and communications at the University of Bath

It's clear, as UK higher education develops in the 21st century, that diff erent universities need to serve different markets. At Bath, we place a strong emphasis on our students getting experience with employers as part of many degrees. Around 60 per cent of our undergraduates spend up to a year on such placements, in business and the public sector, as part of their degrees. This model would not be possible with degrees that are two years long.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Now it's your turn! Do you think two-year degrees are going to revolutionise the higher education system or are they dictating a reduced level of teaching? Will they open up more career opportunities or make it harder for students to get a good mark? We really want to hear what you think, so e-mail us at whichcourse@independent.co.uk with the subject heading " The Big Question", tell us your name, age and where you're from and get some things off your chest!

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