Johnson revs up plans for fast-track degrees

Image: Wonkhe

Jo Johnson is pushing ahead with plans to enable more accelerated degrees (a Bachelor’s degree in two years).

In a speech to Universities UK last week, Johnson said:

“We know that accelerated courses appeal especially to students who may not otherwise choose to pursue a degree. This includes mature students who want to retrain and enter the workplace faster than a traditional full-time 3-year degree would permit, those from non-traditional or disadvantaged backgrounds, or those who want to get into the workplace faster.”

There had been some confusion in the press about the fee levels, however, and Johnson was at pains to state that the fees would be less than those of a traditional course (not a simple multiplier of the standard fee limit).

The fast lane

Accelerated degrees are not a new phenomenon. The theory goes that if there are only thirty or so teaching weeks a year for a ‘full-time’ programme, then you can add another fifteen weeks each year so that the full ninety is reached in only two years. A few universities began offering the accelerated option in the mid-2000s following encouragement by the Blair government, but wider offerings have been limited. The private provider, the University of Buckingham, is well-known for its accelerated degree options. At the moment, the loans that students can take out to cover fees for any given year (of thirty, or forty-five weeks’ teaching) are limited to the same cap as the traditional three or four year model: this is not a great deal for the teaching institution, so Johnson’s announcement could unblock a major barrier to expansion.

While many universities use their estates for conferencing or summer schools in the vacations, as well as a bit of down-time for refurbishment, there is a strong argument for ‘sweating the assets’ by teaching year-round. It’s not just the physical capital but also the teaching infrastructure such as virtual learning environments, of which more use could be made. This could make teaching more efficient, and the related saving might improve the student experience or, in the case of for-profit providers, improve the owners’ dividends.

Incentives all round

The headline news focused on the notion of charges of up to £14,000 per year as an equivalent to the traditional three-year course (£9,250 multiply by three, divide by two, round up). This concern was dominant in UCU’s response to the government’s proposals – Sally Hunt said that “The debate around two-year degrees comes up regularly and at least there is a new twist this time as the government is not even considering the cut-price element, which some saw as their one saving grace. Allowing universities to charge more money for an accelerated programme looks like another misguided attempt to allow for-profit colleges access to UK higher education.”

At the moment, because the fee cap is in place, any provider offering accelerated degrees does so at its own cost, that is when students access the loans system. Accelerated degrees can be offered privately at higher costs where students can self-finance.

However, within the DfE guidance on the proposed Bill amendments, it is clear that the intention is for the course to cost less, say £12,000/year, offering a ‘discount’ to students while also incentivising providers to explore this option. Additionally that there would be a smaller call on maintenance loans thus saving the taxpayer money. For students, particularly mature learners keen to use their qualifications in the jobs market, the two-year option reduces living costs, and non-earning time taken to study.

The encouragement should then work for both institutions and students, the logic goes, and increase the level of competition in the great HE marketplace.

The European problem

On the face of it, the policy provides more student choice and potential efficiencies. But it’s not going to be an easy ride: detractors of the policy will argue that the plans for accelerated degrees aren’t compliant with the European harmonisation project stemming from the Bologna Declaration, threaten the quality of students’ experience and will result in unpalatable burdens for teaching staff. And these arguments aren’t new: they were used the last time the accelerated degree policy surfaced when Vince Cable proposed more two-year degrees in 2010.

While Bologna-compliance may be seen as less of an issue in Brexit Britain, we should first note that the Bologna area extends beyond the EU (the European Higher Education Area). But we should also note that the one-year Master’s degree, widely offered in UK universities in contrast to the two-year options in other systems, is also outside the Bologna expectations for a second-cycle qualification. And there is still a lack of reconciliation of the difference between the UK’s approach to assessing outcomes of learning, and other systems’ focus on the input of learning hours. The issue is less of compliance and more about what the implications of non-compliance are for students and the portability of their awards.

Does it matter if two-year degrees aren’t recognised elsewhere? For many students, it probably wouldn’t. If they’re not aiming for further study at a non-UK European university, then the issue would probably never come up, though some employers in Europe could have an issue. It would need to be crystal clear – to EU and other overseas students in particular – what the implications are of taking an accelerated degree which might have more limited acceptance. There’s also an argument that the Bologna Declaration has been superseded by credit-based approaches to study, so what’s the fuss about?

And then there’s the politics

It’s fair to say that the politics of accelerated degrees are strongly weighted in favour of the challenger providers. We know from Independent HE’s submission to the consultation that its members are keen on this model, but feel that the policy should better support them to develop and deliver in this way. GuildHE, which also represents some private providers, made strong arguments in its submission that the key stimulus for accelerated degrees is the funding system, though it didn’t think the accelerated model would work for all disciplines.

By contrast, the Russell Group doesn’t see much interest in the policy amongst its members. Million Plus and University Alliance are somewhere in the middle, seeing some opportunity, and perhaps some threat. Million Plus’s statement on Johnson’s announcement suggested some scepticism about the potential size of the market, but welcomed the proposal along with University Alliance.

All of this is hardly surprising, nor has it been lost on the sector that the policy drive continues to offer encouragement to private providers and for stimulating the market – key aspects of Johnson’s overall agenda.

The DfE announcement proposes a consultation on the detail of how to deliver the higher fee limit for accelerated programmes, so it’ll be a little while before there’s the statutory green light for implementation.

See also our article on the plan for encouraging credit transfer.

7 thoughts on “Johnson revs up plans for fast-track degrees”

  1. Tim Birtwistle says:

    The EHEA has 48 members. First cycle degrees (BAs) are time defined as a minimum 3 years. So a strong caveat must be given to all students about the potential detriment of a 2 year degree (further study and potentially employment when considering how much of our industry is owned abroad – electricity, water, railways, banks etc.). Also looking to the US any further study there may well be out as it took much persuasion to many to accept the UK 3 year degree for post-graduate studies. One imagines that the CMA will take a close look at any advertising etc. .

  2. After all the quality and reputation of UK institution are at stake . Education should not be money making machine . Two year-bachelor degree will be a disaster for UK education especially for overseas students who cannot be admitted on MSC or MA courses abroad; think twice

  3. pbacsich says:

    Let’s see the evidence for these assertions. As we move to competency-based higher education (prevalent now in the US) and a market economy for post-grad in many countries are we sure these time-based traditions are still valid? Are we sure that universities will turn away good students (and the fees they bring) as more and more countries chase the international market (Netherlands being the latest convert)? Is this a covert way of selection by institution rather than degree? What if one Russell Group HEI takes it up? Did anyone ever complain about an accelerated Masters?

    1. Tim Birtwistle says:

      Competency-based education is gaining some ground in the US but it is hardly prevalent. Two year degrees hardly made any impact first time around and in any case questions of recognition, learning gain, reflective learning remain. The US experience of the for profit providers and completion rates should be a cause for alarm.

    2. Jonathan parker says:

      Competency degrees are very few and far between in the US, largely because regional accrediting agencies define bachelor’s degrees according to contact hours (more similar to the rest of the EU). You can finish them faster in the summers, but it’s the same amount of work. These rare degrees are treated with great suspicion by everyone because they only take, er, three years to complete.

  4. lizmorrish says:

    I think I can tell you what a 2 year degree means to a U.S. employer = community college, or more or equivalent to FE.. It would not be taken as equivalent to their 4 year Bachelors. If we are serious about incorporating work placements and experience of research at undergraduate level, then we should be considering 4 year degrees, as they are now doing in Hong Kong. We need to expand. and diversify the student experience, not constrain it.

  5. AndyR says:

    “But we should also note that the one-year Master’s degree, widely offered in UK universities in contrast to the two-year options in other systems, is also outside the Bologna expectations for a second-cycle qualification.” The linked article contained within this passage argues the opposite: one-year master’s are compliant with Bologna, but are nonetheless not always accepted within some European counties, especially where credit is enshrined in law. But otherwise yes, it likely only matters if you want to use the qualification outside of the UK.

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