Talkin’ bout intercalation – the new four year degrees

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At Wonkfest17, David Willetts weighed into the perennial question of how long a degree should take, with a call for English universities to offer four-year degrees. His preferred model is one of a broad first year followed by three years of specialised study.

However, a number of UK universities have recently been experimenting with an alternative model for four-year degrees. This is the idea of an intercalated year in another subject, with computer science being the most popular. Birmingham, Kent, and Sussex now all offer the option of adding an additional year to degrees to focus on computer science. 

Another subject

This idea of an intercalated year has a long history in medical degrees, where students would take a year out from core medical studies to take an additional year’s study in a scientific subject such as biochemistry, neuroscience, or medical statistics—more recently, these options have broadened to include medical humanities and law. These new intercalated years open out this possibility out to the whole university, allowing students from any subject to add technological knowledge and skills to their degree; vital in an era where coding, data, and artificial intelligence are transforming both academic research and the workplace. HESA tightly define the term “intercalated” to refer only to medical, dentistry or veterinary courses – I use it here in the broader sense.

At Kent, we have found that students take this year for a number of reasons. Some want to combine computing skills into their existing degree – adding knowledge of computing to biology to move towards postgraduate bioinformatics research, or using advanced tech skills to advance their fine art practice. Some have discovered on internships and placements that including substantial digital skills in their degree will lead to better postgraduate employment. Others want the skills to start up an online business after graduation.  For some students, this option means that they don’t have to compromise between studying for personal enthusiasm and studying for vocational reasons—they can study their life’s passion and add a year in a vocationally relevant subject.

This approach has an advantage over traditional joint honours degrees in that the students doing the year form a coherent cohort and help to support each other. Another advantage is that students opt into this after being at university for a year or two; they have a mature knowledge of university study, and a strong sense of direction. One unexpected benefit has been that the gender balance on the course has been almost even; computer science as a discipline regularly wrings its hands over the low (10-15%) female participation rate. With intercalated years we are seeing the first initiative that is making a radical impact on this important issue, supporting national initiatives for gender equality such as Athena SWAN.

Cost and benefit

Clearly there is a cost implication for students for this; an additional year of study does not come cheap, but this is traded off against a stronger set of skills and knowledge upon entering the workplace. For universities, there are different models with different costs. Some institutions have chosen to implement an intercalated year by curating a set of modules from existing undergraduate programmes. This is the cheapest way to achieve this, but doesn’t do so much for forming a cohort of students. Others have implemented this as a stand-alone programme, drawing in part on existing material. This allows a stronger sense of identity amongst the students. One particular set of advantages are to do with timetabling. Rather than the nightmare of timetabling many tiny joint honours programmes, everything happens in a stand-alone year. At Kent, this has meant that our School has been able to do away with joint-honours provision, thus freeing up the single honours undergraduate timetable and allowing for more experiments in teaching delivery, without being constrained by module timetables from other Schools.

Administrative costs and concerns are fairly small. There have been some problems with students on accredited programmes adding such a year; for some incomprehensible reason some professional bodies need to re-accredit the degree with the intercalated year, even though it has no less subject knowledge than the original degree. A particular advantage has been in the application process—applicants are coming from our own university, and so we have detailed information about the students applying and confidence that they are already working successfully in the university study environment.

There are many other possibilities for such programmes. An intercalated year in business—whether offering generic business skills, or a focus on, say, marketing or entrepreneurship—has an appeal in terms of jobs or business-startup after graduation. Other, more specialised options, could include a year focusing on media production or journalism, feeding the increased demand for people with a depth of knowledge in a subject combined with the ability to communicate effectively. Another option is a year focused on law or politics, allowing students to build a rounded understanding both of a main subject in depth and an understanding of how policy, regulation and intellectual property impact upon that subject, leading both to exciting careers and novel postgraduate research options.. And who wouldn’t want to leaven their degree by developing the skills to put it into a historical context, or respond to it in the medium of poetry, painting, or interpretive dance!

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