Two-Year Degrees – Here comes another educational disaster

Jo Johnson, the UK minister responsible for (English) higher education has announced that universities are to be encouraged to offer two-year rather than three-year degrees. This is said to reduce the costs of a degree and so encourage more people to undertake higher education.

On the face of it this seems to make sense. Students in England spend approximately 30 weeks per year at university so that 90 weeks would seem to fit into two years without any reduction in delivered content. After all, why should students have 22 weeks ‘holiday’ a year instead of about 6 weeks like the rest of the working population.

In fact, the idea illustrates that the minister for higher education simply does not understand higher education. It is a completely stupid idea that will mean more ‘graduates’ coming into the workplace who are ill-equipped for work and who will be ripped off by universities who care more about being a profitable business rather than delivering high-quality education.

There are many reasons why two year degrees are a bad idea but I’ll focus here on two of these. Firstly, for most degrees, the employability of graduates depends on skills not information. Secondly, it is absolutely inevitable that standards will fall and a two year degree will not be equivalent to a three year degree.

The notion that degrees can be compressed into two years rather than three supposes that the information imparted in a 3-year course could be equally well imparted in a 2 year, more intensive source. This is undoubtedly true – it might even be more effective as there are fewer ‘holidays’ for the students to forget things.

However, while the information imparted in a degree is useful in some jobs, for a very large number of students, the work that they do does not rely on the particular facts that they learned during their degree course. This is obviously true for arts and social science degrees but is equally true for the physicist who becomes a bond trader, the biologist who becomes a science journalist and the mechanical engineer who becomes a computer programmer.

Of far more importance than the ‘facts’ imparted during a degree are the skills that are developed during the student’s degree course. These may include laboratory skills, learning skills, research skills, data analysis skills, cooperative working skills, programming skills, skills in presenting arguments and so on. They are actually what employers are looking for.

Skill development is a much slower process than learning facts. It requires lots of practice and some of this practice involves fairly extended processes. If you ask someone to write an essay on the economic effects of Brexit (say), students have to collect and analyse information from a wide range of sources, critically assess that information and summarise this in an essay.

In my experience, what seems to be ‘holidays’ for students are actually spent working on coursework – developing those essential skills that employers are looking for. The vast majority of students try to work in their long vacation – sometimes directly developing skills and sometimes developing other kinds of skills like interacting with customers that are actually of value. They are not lounging around on the beach but are actually continuing with their learning.

If you compress a degree into two years, you lose the time for skill development. This means that students who take a two year degree are less employable than those who do a longer course. They will earn less over time and are more likely to be underemployed – working in coffee shops and call centres.

Students who go to university as young adults are learning about themselves and many of them develop new passions in a different environment from the structured school environment that they previously knew. Mine were programming and mountaineering – I was and proudly remain a nerd. They meet new people and develop relationships that overwhelm them. These passions become, for a time, far more important to them than their degree and their studies take second place. This is part of growing up and pronouncements by government ministers will never change this.

Our current degree structure, by accident or design, I’m not sure, recognises this. There is a tolerance in the system that allows students to get things wrong then correct the problem. I recall that my 2nd year performance as a student was far from stellar but that the system allowed me to recover and ultimately do OK. This tolerance exists because there is time – students have the summer to study for resits or to catch up with missed coursework. It disappears in a two year degree so students who do badly will, on the face of it, fail.

Of course, you might say that two-year courses are intended to encourage mature students and these issues will not apply. In fact, my experience is that mature students, even more than students who come straight from school, need the slack in the system. They are not used to the demands of regular assessment and they take time to adapt to that way of working. They often need extra support and time to fulfil their potential.

In English universities today, failure is not an option. Students are paying customers so a failed student is lost income. Consequently, courses and assessments will be made easier so that everyone passes. Standards, which have already been pushed down by the costs of failure, will inevitably fall further.

No self-respecting university should touch two year degrees. However, I’m sorry to say that some university management care only about their revenue stream and not about the education they offer students or their responsibilities to them. They will undoubtedly happen and be proclaimed a great success. Their failure will only emerge later long after the politicians concerned have moved on to other things.

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