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?

Are you asking enough questions?

Last week, I talked about understanding questions as a whole and then breaking them down into parts. Both stages are in order for you to get as much meaning from a question as possible.

Questions are important. You need to understand questions, answer questions, and ask questions.

photo by e-magic
photo by e-magic

Assignments go beyond asking how much information you can remember on a topic. Assignment questions also require you to:

  • create an argument;
  • weigh up different views;
  • provide examples and workings, as opposed to regurgitations;
  • demonstrate understanding of the topics under discussion.

It’s easy to get stuck on key topic words that you have a lot of knowledge on. But dig deeper and you’ll notice more to the question. The closer you come to answering the question clearly, deeply, and effectively, the more likely your grade (and enjoyment!) will benefit.

Look for:

  • What’s being asked of you – Does the question ask you to discuss, compare, analyse, argue, evaluate…? The question is probably worded so that you should talk about what you know, but relate to why that’s the case and explain how it could be different or why people have different theories on the matter.
  • Specific focus points – Some questions can be vague, but many ask you to concentrate on a particular feature to base your answer on. You may also notice the question is guiding you to frame your answer in a certain context, such as a single culture, time period, object, opinion, text, and so on.
  • Leading words and phrases – For example, you may be asked to analyse the benefits of something. This is not an invitation to lavish praise upon the subject. To analyse the benefits means to weigh up, to argue whether they really are benefits, and to discuss alternatives. You aren’t being asked a trick question, but you do need to show awareness that there is more than one side to any story. You are welcome to have an opinion on the matter, so long as you explain why you have reached that conclusion and show why you don’t share the same enthusiasm for the alternatives. You’re not stating right/wrong, yes/no, good/bad answers. Instead, you’re reaching a conclusion after exploring the topic.

You also need to ask a lot of questions. Unanswered questions, questions that arise from your study, and questioning assumptions.

Even after you’ve written up a good draft of an essay and you’re happy with it, read through the draft again. Ask yourself — and try to answer — these 15 questions throughout your draft:

  1. How did I come to say that?
  2. Have I backed this up?
  3. Can I say this any clearer?
  4. Does this point follow on?
  5. Should I give more detail here?
  6. Does this assume something I haven’t mentioned?
  7. Does this need referencing?
  8. Will a relevant quotation and/or summary help before I move on?
  9. Is this relevant to the question/title?
  10. Could my main point be made more prominently?
  11. Am I making sense here?
  12. Am I being critical or opinionated?
  13. Does this require an example or demonstration?
  14. Has there been a more recent development?
  15. Is something missing?

These questions are simple enough to make you think, and challenging enough to make you respond. If you’re not asking these questions about your writing, answer this question: Why not?

Always check what you’re being asked to do

I learned an important lesson at school that stayed with me throughout my time at university.

My Home Economics teacher announced to class that, as a change of plan, everyone would be completing a short test during the lesson. We had planned on doing some baking that day, so the alternative was a rough deal. I could make a mean flapjack…

“Don’t worry,” said the teacher. “Maybe we’ll still make stuff after the test. There should be time…”

When the paper was handed out, the teacher said we could start and she told us to read through all the questions first so we understood what we were being asked to do. Naturally, we were more concerned with finishing the test as quickly as possible. So when the time started, we raced off.

photo by Cathdew
photo by Cathdew

The test didn’t seem too hard. Slightly bizarre, but not difficult:

  1. Read through this test.
  2. Write today’s date at the top of the page.
  3. Write your name in any corner of the page.
  4. What is 100 minus 99?
  5. Touch your nose for 5 seconds.
  6. Get out of your chair, jump up twice, and sit down again.
  7. Draw a circle in the middle of the page.
  8. Wave your arms in the air.

And the list went on like this over a couple of pages. The tasks got increasingly lengthy and ridiculous. And before long, the entire class was all over the place and laughing at each other.

But some people grew suspicious and confused. Instead of carrying on, more and more of us started to read through the test. The final task said, “To complete this test, you only need to complete the first task. Everything else is irrelevant. Thanks for reading through the test first.”

The teacher wasn’t trying to make fun of the class. She said that it may have been a laugh, but there was a serious point: It pays to check what you are being asked to do. If you don’t truly know what’s being asked, how can you be sure you’re on the right track?

From that point, I understood the importance of treating essay and exam questions as seriously as the answers. Your assignments aren’t likely to have tricks like the one I’ve described, but it shows how easily you can end up answering the wrong question and lose big marks as a result.

So what do you do?

  • Don’t rush in – Always allow a few moments to take in and read through questions and requirements.
  • Don’t look for key words in isolation – You’re unlikely to be asked to write everything you know about a particular word or subject, so take the question as a whole before you do anything else.
  • Now break the question down into pieces – When you understand the full question (and only once you do), dissect it for clues and pointers. Have you been given a specific target to frame your answer? Does the question ask you to discuss, evaluate, compare, examine, demonstrate…?
  • Look for vague comments and anything that’s open to question – Practically nothing can be boiled down to a right or wrong answer. If you can spot a flaw or anything that’s open to interpretation, it may hold the key to how you should answer. Academic writing usually involves explanations and conclusions, but it also involves asking many more questions in return.
  • If in doubt, ask your tutor – This may not be possible in exam conditions, but for other coursework and class assignments, it’s better to ask for clarification before you rush ahead.

I don’t think I ever thanked my Home Economics teacher for giving us that test. It may not have improved my flapjack recipe, but it was still a great recipe for success…

Looking Beyond Employability

I found this tucked away near the end of an article in the Independent on Sunday:

“Students should learn not how to win arguments but how to ask subversive questions of authority, assess evidence and find the truth. They should discover how to critique the paradigms within which others expect us to live.”

That may sound trouble-making. Revolutionary, even. But that would be missing the point.

The important thing to think of here is ‘critical thinking’. About having access to and understanding of the tools that will enable you to do things. What you subsequently decide to do is then up to you.

photo by Dr.Fitz

“I’ve been looking everywhere to find employability skills…” (photo by Dr.Fitz)

So how can you be expected to ‘find the truth’? What if it’s not that simple?

Good questions. Things are never that simple. But neither question should stop you seeking out truth and question what is in front of you.

Critical thinking and employability skills bear many similarities. Engineering consultancy, Atkins, has called for universities to help students develop their employability skills:

“When considering whether to go to university, students would be wise to research where skills shortages lie in the marketplace and do a degree which is more likely to lead to a job offer.”

This view may help students and employers service needs right now, but it doesn’t cover possible future needs. Many jobs will be available in a decade or two that aren’t currently in existence. The skills shortage in that respect is a complete unknown.

To really achieve at employability, you need to look past employability in isolation. So how can you move forward without feeling completely in the dark?

A joint NUS and CBI guide to employability skills has been released to help with that. “Working Towards Your Future” is a short guide for students to get an idea of the general qualities employers are looking for in a graduate.

Aaron Porter, NUS president, said:

“A greater understanding of employability will enable today’s students to develop themselves, make a contribution and fulfil their potential tomorrow.”

You aren’t treading along an educational production line. You are participating in higher education. While you should expect your university to have the right types of access and tools in place for you to succeed, you should also feel a personal responsibility by acting with your own future in mind.

That doesn’t mean you’re only at university to enhance your career. Perhaps, like myself, you went into higher education because you wanted to find out more about a subject. An inquisitive mind is all it takes and you can be hooked.

Higher education can lead to a successful future and it can open many doors, but the fact it can lead to those things does not make it the reason behind higher education. Think of your life as a journey of lifelong learning and your skillset can be used beyond the ’employability’ tag.

Nevertheless, it would be daft to ignore students who attend university in the hope of brighter career prospects. Employability skills shouldn’t be an afterthought, but an integral part of your overall learning. By truly furthering your thoughts, considering other views, researching complex situations, opening up your mind, and imagining possibilities while you study, your employability should improve hugely. No matter how you define ’employability’.

While none of this happens automatically, university is one place where a lot of this is at hand to reach out and grab. So when something isn’t working out satisfactorily, or even if it’s just slightly out of your reach, don’t just sit back and grumble. Ask questions, assess evidence, and find the truth!