Questioning the Implications of Two-Year, Fast-Track Degrees


I’ve seen both joy and grief at news that the government are set to announce fast-track degrees that cost the same as traditional three-year courses.

I’ve also seen the many cries that this isn’t the first time two-year plans have been considered.

No matter how you feel about condensed courses, the first place to start is with questions.

Well, it’s how I like to start, anyway. So here are a few initial questions that come to the top of my mind:

Can all degrees translate into two years?

Can all degrees translate into two years? How will the quality of teaching, and the content on offer to students, be assessed? This is especially important for the first couple of student intakes.

How will the course structure work for students?

Will there be holiday time for students at all? Will there be time for extra-curricular activities? Will there be time/ability/flexibility for part-time work?

How will the course structure work for academics?

Will there be time for research? Will this situation result in two-year degrees in teaching-based universities far more than research-intensive institutions? Will this exacerbate a tiered system?

Speaking of tiered systems, could two-year degrees attract those from disadvantaged backgrounds, for the wrong reasons?

There are already signs that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to focus on the academic work, at the detriment of extracurricular activities and other pursuits.

Will emphasis on fast-tracking degree lead to even greater assumption that the degree is the main need for moving into the workplace? Will students from disadvantaged backgrounds be more likely to take on these courses, while further restricting them by focusing too much on the academic and not enough on other activities outside the degree?

What will universities do to show they are spending the same on the fast-track course?

The Guardian states:

“…universities would have to prove they were investing the same resources in the fast-track students as in those studying for a conventional degree.”

Do universities currently highlight how they invest their resources in each course? What processes (and what safeguards) will be put into place to examine university spending from a three-year offering compared to a two-year offering? And what if an institution decided to offer a course on a two-year track only? Work with historical spending data (that may not even exist)? Work on the basis that this is the first year of offering the course and exempt the institution from proving spending levels?

Will “First year doesn’t count” be replaced by an equally problematic situation?

That problem of the mistaken “First year doesn’t count” may well go, but the new problem could be that students will be expected to put in quality work from the outset. This may not be realistic, as academic methods of working require some getting used to at the start.

Will some people jump at the chance of getting the best of both worlds?

Could this flexibility of offering a fast-track degree help those people who are more inclined to jump into the world of work, yet who also want a higher level of education for the benefits it can bring ongoing?

What about universities getting the best of both worlds?

Some degrees cost more than others. By charging a similar fee level as three-year degrees, might universities see the possibility to make more money by offering fast-track on the courses that cost less anyway? More opportunity to boost incoming to support more costly degrees, research, etc. Positives and negatives to this for all and should be considered carefully before hastily implementing.

Can conversations be driven in a way that avoids hasty opinions?

Top-level statements of two-year degrees helping students, universities and the economy are not enough. The devil, as always, is in the detail. Yet these big statements aren’t meant for policy wonks and those delivering the teaching. The overall message sounds good to the public and can drive opinion. Therefore, as well as driving continued conversation and analysis in-house and with government, it’s important to find ways to bring that conversation through to the wider public so that they understand the potential impact (good and bad) of moves to fast-track degrees.

Where will applicant support come from and how will it be ensured as reasonable?

By providing this solution as well as more traditional three-year paths (and work-placement options, etc.), outreach work and applicant advice will need to be clear in explaining the pros and cons for each path. This should not be driven by marketing departments and vested interests. OFFA, et al, will need to have practical guidelines in place; preferably enforceable to some extent. I don’t know how this would look at this stage, but it would certainly need addressing.

If tuition fees remain the same, what about the psychological view of debt?

When students (and their families) weigh up whether to go to university, the issue of debt cannot be avoided. Applications to university may not have suffered a great deal, but there is greater resentment over the cost of attending.

Yes, a two-year course would remove a year of living costs. But the psychological view of debt doesn’t change. Tuition fees would stay roughly the same. If tuition debt is set to run at the same level, applicants (and, once again, their families) may continue to feel unhappy. It doesn’t matter how the payments work out in reality, the idea of debt can be enough to switch some people off from engaging beyond that.

These are just a few quick questions that need to be examined more closely when considering how fast-track degrees may work.

What questions would you add to the list?