debt

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

cheetahs-fast-track-degree

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?

A Mixed Bag of 10 Thoughts, Quoted

I collect quotations from various places. Books and online. I make notes on the stuff I read every day.

I thought I’d drop 10 examples your way in this post. Just because. Maybe something will inspire or interest you further.

You never know when a comment here and an example there can come in handy. I also collect random stories that are of no use at the moment, but are quirky. When the right time comes along, I use the stories to inject some fun into a piece of writing.

Always be on the lookout for inspiration. You may find nothing of interest in the examples below. But when you see anything that makes you stop and think, it’s worth making a note of it. The more you can collect, the more you have at your disposal later on.

Note it down. Save it for later.

Collecting little thoughts is one way you can start to make good use out of what you consume.

10 Thoughts, Quoted

1.

“You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.”

From the Introduction to Wonderland by Steven Johnson

In other words, get playful!

1play

2.

“Ultimately innovation is local. You have a problem to fix, a group who want to solve it, and you come together in a common space to work it out.”

http://blog.hefce.ac.uk/2016/12/19/how-higher-education-can-make-the-industrial-strategy-a-success/

I like how the ‘local’ doesn’t always have to be in terms of physical placement.

2connect

3.

“…holding on to the idea that willpower is a limited resource can actually be bad for you, making you more likely to lose control and act against your better judgment.”

https://medium.com/the-mission/the-way-youve-been-thinking-about-willpower-is-hurting-you-8621b1e2b30f#.x9wtrfkte

Willpower is limited if you think it is. I will you to keep going!

3willpower

4.

“If takers are selfish and failed givers are selfless, successful givers are otherish: they care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests.” – p.182

From Give and Take by Adam Grant

Giving is wonderful, so long as you remember to give to yourself at the same time.

4give

5.

“A sociologist at the University of Chicago surveyed the references cited in a database of 34 million scientific articles. He analyzed the citations with respect to whether the articles cited were available online. The more journals became digitally available, the more recent the references became, and the narrower their scope.” – p.61

From Words Onscreen by Naomi S. Baron

The book was published in 2016. That feels like ages ago…

5time

6.

“Student loan policy wonks have always assumed that if you provide guarantees and limit liability/risk on student loans, then students will be ok with debt.  But if the facts of the policy don’t change people’s attitudes about risk, then the policies will fail, no matter how well they deal with the actual problems at hand.”

http://higheredstrategy.com/does-student-debt-matter-if-youre-not-going-to-pay-it-back/

This is just as relevant for parents too. The idea of debt, no matter how it’s presented, is too much for some. Especially when there have been past problems with more traditional debts, or they have spent their life avoiding debt. What do you think those parents will say to their children who want to go to university?

6debt

7.

“Podcasting is sometimes dismissed as nothing more than radio in your ears, on your own schedule, but I beg to differ. It’s far more intimate than traditional radio. And news organizations that realize the power of this intimacy will likely have an advantage in the long run.”

http://www.niemanlab.org/2016/12/the-year-of-the-newsy-podcast/

On-demand audio for the win.

7audio

8.

“Humans live peacefully with contradictions precisely because of their capacity to compartmentalise. And when contradictory statements, actions or emotions jump out of their contextual box, we are very good, perhaps too good, at finding justifications to soothe cognitive dissonance.”

https://aeon.co/ideas/how-our-contradictions-make-us-human-and-inspire-creativity

But when you recognise this, you can use the abundance of contradiction in wonderful ways too. Embrace the push and pull.

8contradiction

9.

“Crucially, our ‘social orientation’ appears to spill over into more fundamental aspects of reasoning. People in more collectivist societies tend to be more ‘holistic’ in the way they think about problems, focusing more on the relationships and the context of the situation at hand, while people in individualistic societies tend to focus on separate elements, and to consider situations as fixed and unchanging.”

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170118-how-east-and-west-think-in-profoundly-different-ways

Specific generalisations. The article has some thought-provoking stuff.

9fixed

10.

A reason why conservatives tend to use nouns more than liberals is because nouns outline greater stability. Describing someone using nouns “implies more certainty and permanence about their state of being”.

https://digest.bps.org.uk/2017/01/12/why-conservatives-like-to-use-nouns-more-than-liberals-do/

Pay attention to how people describe things. Do they “feel positive”, or are they “a positive person”? You may get a better insight when you listen to how the sentences are constructed as well as what’s being said.

10stable

Think of the little thoughts and stories you collect as stepping stones. Each step can take you closer to new ideas.

Over to you. It’s time to create out of what you curate.

What Are Student Perceptions Of Debt?

This week has been National Student Money Week. So there’s no better time (if there is ever a GOOD time!) to talk about student debt. *shudder*

what are student perceptions of debt

Living costs are an issue just as much fees, if not more so. Hidden course costs, social outlay, not to mention basic needs like food, drink and accommodation; it all adds up. And the more it adds up, the more likely students are to get into debt.

Now a new report suggests that graduates may end up repaying tens of thousands more on their student loans. It’s no wonder some people are put off attending university.

While student loans constitute a special type of debt that only begins to be repaid once a graduate is earning more than £21,000, it is still seen by many as a scary debt. A debt that has little chance of going away until 30 years have passed.

Debt is a common concern

The UNITE Student Experience Survey 2014 discovered that many applicants feel in the dark regarding their finances. And while current students have a much better view of their finances, only 56% state that their financial streams are sufficient. That still leaves nearly a quarter (24%) of undergraduate respondents saying their finances are not sufficient, and another fifth uncertain of their position.

Couple this with the survey’s finding that finances are the most frequent concern for students whilst at university and it is clear that a sizeable proportion of students are not comfortable with their debt experiences.

A surprising 28% of students polled claimed not to have any debt whatsoever. Does the high proportion suggest that not all debt is necessarily considered a debt? For instance, undergraduates are far more likely to use bank overdrafts than applicants assume will be the case (28% of students, compared with 11% of applicants). Given the percentage of respondents claiming not to have been in any debt whatsoever, it could be that they do not even see an overdraft as a debt in the first place.

bank notes

Fear doesn’t always lead to confrontation

So where does that leave perceptions of debt? Although tuition fees have been the focus of much national media coverage, it is unlikely that students see fees as an area where savings can be made.

Because while tuition fees are variable, up to £9,000, institutions tend to charge close to the maximum anyway. Students do not see enough difference between universities to influence their choices. One study also suggests that bursaries and other financial incentives are rarely investigated until much later in the process, if at all.

This suggests that many applicants have background fears about debt, but do not confront them. This may be due to a lack of time, or a failure to see the importance of such a worry. One way or another, financial concerns make an impact on behaviour that is sometimes indirect and unconscious.

Money and debt are, therefore, motivators that can work in negative ways. But attitudes and perceptions are difficult to work out without detailed, lengthy, costly research.

HEFCE analyses POLAR3 codes, which refer to postcode areas where people are more or less likely to participate in higher education. We can use these to assess educational disadvantages regarding HE, although HEFCE state that POLAR3 codes are not a reliable indication of disadvantaged areas in general. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see no notable differences from respondents to the UNITE survey regarding attitudes toward debt across the POLAR3 codes.

The survey did find some differences. Those in category 1 of POLAR3 (least likely to be participating in HE) were found more likely to be thinking about their job or career, as well as thinking about their family. Those in category 5 (most likely to participate) were more likely to live in university halls than categories 1 and 2.

Despite these findings, group 1 respondents were less likely to state that their intention to live at home was driven by it being more affordable. This is backed up by research that found that fear of debt was not a reliable predictor of staying at home for university to save money. What we cannot tell behind this is whether indirect and unconscious attitudes played a hidden part in the process.

The same research, by Callender and Jackson, also stated that low-income students were more likely to see the cost of their university experience as a debt and not an investment.

This difference between investment and debt can make an impact on student decisions. A 2010 Policy Exchange report stated that it is difficult for students to make rational decisions surrounding university when debts are involved. The report said, “At present such data is worryingly thin, and would-be students are left largely in the dark about many questions that they consider to be important”.

money close up

Information alone is not enough

Fast forward to 2015 again and policy has developed that centres on providing more information to prospective students through as they form the ‘heart of the system’. From Key Information Sets to improved support services once on campus, one thing students don’t seem to be lacking in is information.

But does all this upfront information make much difference to perceptions of debt? Do applicants feel reassured by promises of good value, good resources, and good job prospects?

Callender argues that information alone is not enough to improve the student experience. She also says that the game has changed, calling the 2012/13 reforms ‘more extreme’. For those in less advantaged positions, Callender suggests that the new system is more likely to reduce their chances of entering higher education and that HE could become more elitist rather than inclusive.

It’s clear that certain perceptions of debt can lead to decisions that are not always in the best interests of the individual. What is less clear is understanding who is most at risk and how they reached that perception of debt. We may find that the same concerns result in vastly different actions. Some people will not go to university at all, while others attend but tread a careful path. Others may ignore their situation altogether until it is too late.

We should stop and think carefully about this uncertainty. It is easy to shrug off when application figures to university are still healthy despite £9k fees. But that is not the whole picture. A worrying number of students will experience university in such a way that is potentially detrimental to their participation in HE and to their future beyond university.

Debt isn’t going away, so perceptions make a difference. For those 44% of students from the Unite Student Survey with uncertain or insufficient finances, it is vital to ensure that they not only receive advice and guidance where necessary, but also gain support to improve their personal perceptions of debt.

Nobody enjoys being in debt so it is crucial that students understand different types of debt and shape their perceptions of them accordingly. Only then can students respond in a way that gives them the best chance of dealing with their situation positively.

This article arose from a data hackathon, run by Unite Students and NUS Services in partnership with Wonkhe. The dataset is drawn from the Students Matter survey conducted Dec 2013-Jan 2014 by NUS Services and published in May 2014 by Unite Students.