There is a deep-rooted traditional delivery model for higher education which dominates the provision of undergraduate education in England. The three-year full-time model accounts for 80% of first-degree students.
The three month summer holiday provides the opportunity for students to go home, rest, earn some money and socialise with old friends. It also provides academics with much-needed research time, as well as for preparing for their teaching in the academic year ahead. And of course, this is also when the estate gets some TLC. But in a society where we want everything done yesterday, is the summer holiday a frivolous luxury that many students cannot afford?
There has been a developing narrative that higher education is a closed shop – providing only courses and delivery models that work for providers and not for students – with no serious innovation either being delivered or sought. Jo Johnson would have us believe that the current three-year model is the only form of delivery which providers care about: “For too long we have been stuck with a system that has increasingly focused on offering only one way of benefiting from higher education, via the classic three-year degree programme.”
Accelerated “fast-track” undergraduate degrees are not new, with some providers having delivered them for decades. They provide an opportunity for students to continue their studies over the summer months and reducing the time it takes to complete a full- or part-time degree by a third. But they are not widespread, accounting for only 0.2% of undergraduate enrolments and, critically, they are not suitable for all courses where you need the additional time to develop skills, and knowledge.
Providers want to be more flexible with what and how they deliver programmes, but the current approach to student loans means that the sector has been dis-incentivised to innovate. For example at GuildHE, we’d welcome the opportunity to discuss a more credit-based approach to the student loan system. There are lots of ways that the funding system could be genuinely more flexible.
There has been building pressure for the sector to develop more accelerated programmes. It has been explicitly mentioned in HEFCE Grant Letters since 2009, the OFFA and HEFCE national strategy for access and student success (2014) and the Conservative Party Manifesto (2015). Today the government has bolstered its commitment to encouraging more accelerated courses by supporting the sector financially through a 20% increase in the fee cap for accelerated programmes. The consultation also reaffirms the commitment to providing students with additional living cost support through the long course maintenance loan, something which has always been available but not been well-publicised.
The HEFCE Flexible Learning Pathfinder Projects between 2005-2010 demonstrated that there are increased costs for delivering accelerated courses, and when fees were capped in England at the annual £9,000 (or £6,000 for alternative providers), it didn’t allow institutions to recover their costs and thus dis-incentivised their development. Providers will now have the ability to charge an extra 20% on top of the current fee cap (up to £11,100) which will provide much needed additional resources to support student learning.
There are many benefits to students from getting their degree more quickly. The HEFCE pilot showed that these courses were particularly attractive to mature and BME students. DfE claims that this route saves the average graduate £25,000 when you add the average salary of £19,000 in the first year after graduation to the 20% reduction in fees. There are also some clear benefits to the Treasury in accelerated courses, reducing their loan liability for the student by £5,500.
The development of a faster route to a degree is also good for widening participation. For our members, a typical student on an accelerated programme is a mature learner who needs to complete quickly for practical and financial reasons.
How do fast-track degrees work?
DfE commissioned the Institute for Employment Studies to research the current delivery of accelerated courses. The research found significant variation in the way these programmes were being delivered (especially in the summer term). Many do not deliver ‘traditional’ lecture/seminar sessions during this time, instead developing a blended learning approach with online directed learning, and work placements with a few days on campus in the classroom.
It is no surprise therefore that the courses providers were accelerating were very professionally rooted, and students enjoyed the variety of different learning opportunities. Staff felt that the students studying accelerated programmes were much better prepared for the world of work after completing their course compared to their three-year counterparts, because of the intensity of the learning. Students also echoed this sentiment.
An interesting outcome from the research was that the students accepted on these programmes were very academically capable, and providers felt that this delivery model is best suited to the brightest and most driven students because of its intensity. Wonkhe has highlighted that there is an issue with European recognition of accelerated courses because of the Bologna agreement, but there is nothing in the delivery, outcomes and capability of students on these courses that suggests they are of lower quality.
A bright future?
There is a perception in the sector that fast-track courses are delivered primarily by alternative providers. While they are seen by policy-makers as the home of innovative delivery, there are many HEFCE-funded institutions who also offer some accelerated programmes, and this number is growing. I think a substantial growth area for the sector could and should be four-year accelerated part-time courses.
Aside from part-time students being put-off by the cost of higher education, it’s incredibly daunting to think that you’ll be studying for six or seven years for a bachelor’s degree.
We know we have a problem with a decline in part-time student numbers, with improving access for non-traditional students and the perceived affordability of studying for a degree. Accelerated programmes aren’t suitable for all courses, but it may help us in tackling some of these important social issues.
Students value them, employers like them and they are as academically rigorous as their extended counterparts. Changing the delivery model of undergraduate courses isn’t going to happen overnight, and there are many considerations that will need to be made – such as staff contracts and student support and service opening times. But at GuildHE, we hope that providers will take this opportunity to have a fresh look at their modes of delivery, and genuinely consider the benefits of accelerated programmes to students and the public.