Problems with two-year degrees

I see that the Minister responsible for UK universities, Jo Johnson, has decided that universities should offer two-year degrees, claiming that this will somehow attract more students into higher education.

The idea seems to be that students will get the same `amount’ of teaching, but concentrated in two full calendar years rather than spread over three academic years. This fast-track degree will be offered at a lower level of fee than a normal three-year Bachelors programme.

I can just about accept that this will work in some disciplines and at some universities. The (private) University of Buckingham, for example, already offers such programmes. On the other hand, the University of Buckingham did not participate in the latest Research Excellence Framework, no doubt for the reason that teaching all-year round leaves its academic staff no time to do research or even attend conferences, which (I find) these days is only possible during the summer recess.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think an institution that does not combine teaching and research – and indeed one in which the teaching is not led by research – does not merit the name of `University’. The old polytechnics offered a range of valuable opportunities that complemented the traditional honours degree, but that capacity was basically eliminated in 1992 when all such institutions became universities.

Though my main objection to two-year degrees is their impact on research, there are problems from the teaching side too. One is that keeping up the intensity of full-time study throughout a whole year will, in my opinion, exacerbate the difficulty many students have managing their workload without stress or other mental health difficulties. Moreover, many students currently use the long summer vacation either to work, either to earn money to help offset the cost of study, or to participate in placements, internships or other activities to help make them more employable after graduation.

It would be particularly difficult to manage two-year degrees in STEM disciplines, as the teaching laboratories need maintenance and installation of new equipment, for which the proposed system allows no time. And how would project work fit into the fast-track system? On top of all that there’s the fact that the current fee level does not cover the cost of teaching in STEM disciplines, so having to do it faster and for less money is not going to be possible. Incidentally, many STEM students currently pursue undergraduate programmes that last four years, not three…

These points have no doubt been made before, but there is another point that is less widely understood. The fact is that a two-year Bachelors degree may not be a recognised qualification outside the UK. This is, in fact, already a problem with the four-year undergraduate programmes we call, e.g., MPhys, and regard as Masters level in this country: these are not regarded as Masters qualifications in many European countries. Perhaps this is part of some cunning plan to stop graduates leaving the UK after Brexit?

In the light of these difficulties it is no surprise to me that not a single undergraduate I’ve spoken to thinks that a two-year degree is a sensible option. If the government wants to make studying cheaper, said one Physics student I was chatting to, why don’t they just cut the fees for normal degree programmes?

The impression one gets from all this `thinking’ is that the Government increasingly regards universities as businesses that trade in a commodity called `education’, where the word ‘education’ is narrowly construed as `training’ in the skills needed for future employment. I believe a University education is (or should be) far more about developing critical thinking, problem-solving ability, intellectual curiosity than it is about teaching them, e.g., programming skills. Skills are important, of course, but we also need to educate students in what to use them for.


11 Responses to “Problems with two-year degrees”

  1. Tom Shanks Says:

    Basically I agree – not keen when I increasingly hear about “Stakeholder Advisory Committees” in universities – a degree is more than just a vocational training course!

    On the other hand, it might be possible to implement 2 year degrees in Physics without disrupting research too much. Students could do Years 1 and 2 of 3 year degree and do Year 1 and Year 2 projects throughout the 2 summers to make up for the missing 3rd Year. Some 3rd Year modules could be done in Year 2 if the student had prerequisites – leading to a more specialised degree.
    As long as not too many 2-year students, extra project load for staff in summer might be manageable?

    • Well, we struggle to find supervisors for ~30 MSc projects in the summer, so doing undergraduate projects on top of that is a non-starter.

    • Well, if the Hubble constant is 30 instead of 70, I suppose a three-year-degree could be done in two years. 😀

      I’ll get me coat.

  2. […] “I see that the Minister responsible for UK universities, Jo Johnson, has decided that universities should offer two-year degrees, claiming that this will somehow attract more students into higher education. The idea seems to be that students will get the same `amount’ of teaching, but concentrated in two full calendar years rather than spread over three academic years …” (more) […]

  3. Nigel Adams Says:

    Please check the facts, as I insist all my students should do, before making unjustified statements about the University of Buckingham!

    Although at the University of Buckingham the students work four 9 week terms each year, most academic staff have one term sabbatical each year, so they can and do carry out research.

    in addition, we are regularly seem presenting papers at important national and international academic conferences.

    We are planning and working towards being in the next REF and I am.pleased future the Impact of research will important factor.

    The other interesting fact about the University of Buckingham is that we not only achieved Gold in the recent Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) but we were the only university to score 10 out of 10 in the factors that made up the gold award.

    I hope you have time to visit us and meet me and my students and colleagues.I am sure you will see that the University of Buckingham is distinctive and distinguished.

    • telescoper Says:

      I would be very happy to visit the Physics department at the University of Buckingham and see how it deals with the problems I described above. Unfortunately, I can’t find a link to that on the University of Buckingham website, so perhaps you could provide me with instructions on how to find it?

      I wonder what you think is unjustified about my statement that Buckingham did not participate in the latest REF. It didn’t. Nor, to my knowledge, the RAE before that. Nor the one before that..

  4. I agree. You’d end up with a situation where the top research universities had to jeopardise their research standing to do 2 year degrees. You might end up with a two-tier system (like Unis and Polytechnics?), where the top research universities only offered 3+ year degrees, and other unis offered 2 year qualifications.
    While it’s possible that this would relieve financial strain on students (fees & living costs for a shorter time), I agree that by taking away the long summer break, you also take away the opportunity to earn money, or do (paid, I trust) internships to get valuable experience when it comes to job-hunting.
    +1 on the managing strain thing. It’s not for everyone, but I really liked the Cambridge model of short but intense terms. It fitted well with how I worked, and gave me plenty of down time to recuperate. Learning stuff is hard, and you need space to assimilate your learning.

  5. telescoper Says:

    Readers of this post may have noticed that I deleted a thread of comments from a former undergraduate of the University of Buckingham along with replies from me. I have also banned that individual from commenting further on this blog.

    I provide an open comments feature as a courtesy to readers and feel no need to apologise when that facility is abused, especially by people who can’t even be bothered to read the post they are commenting on!

    If you don’t like my `attempts at blogging’, go somewhere else.

  6. telescoper Says:

    Sigh. The same troll is still trying to post on this page under a false name.

    Are all graduates of Buckingham University so dim and so antisocial?

    Anyway, I’m bored with this behaviour so am closing all comments on this post.

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