Two Year Degrees: Great for some – but not for all

Two year degrees have been in the news this week.  Following the recent consultation Sam Gyimah, Universities Minister, stated on 18 November 2018 “hundreds of thousands of prospective students will be handed more choice than ever before over what they can study at university with the expansion of two-year degrees…which will encourage new providers into the market and help students fast-track their way into the workforce”.    

It sounds fantastic – but personally I am not convinced that on its own this will be a real game changer.  For a start it is one of those issues that has been going round on a revolving higher education policy circle since, in my memory anyway, about 1990/91.  Each time it appears (or reappears) under a new guise and proposed in a slightly different way but in essence the thrust is the same – promoting two year degree options. 

I recall, as a staff member of the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council (PCFC) in the early 1990s, an air of anticipation about a new ‘Accelerated and Intensive Routes to Success’ initiative – and the acronym AIRS had a nice buzz to it.  Around a dozen or so polytechnics (as they then were!) were awarded funding to develop pilots.  The idea seemed to go under (or was it off?) the radar in the early years of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), and interest by HEFCE and/or Government resurfaced from time to time.  Two year degrees remain on offer in some ‘mainstream’ universities – often running alongside a more traditional three year version.  However the two year model is probably more associated with alternative providers, and perhaps most visibly of all with the University of Buckingham. 

Without doubt for some students two year degrees are a real boon, and they have a firm role to play in a diverse higher education sector.  I am not convinced though about some of the claims from the Department of Education about this latest policy push, and I am not sure either that the level of untapped demand is as high as is being suggested.  I suspect (admittedly cynically) that long-term costs for Government and a desire to attract new providers, but not robust evidence, might be the main drivers for the recent statements.  

Mr Gyimah has said that accelerated degrees would “…help improve access for mature students and those who commute, who were previously locked out of higher education”.  Where are the facts to back this up?  Many mature students, for example, have to earn whilst they learn and/or may have caring responsibilities.  An intensive two year programme is exactly that – leaving little scope for anything else, including those other aspects of university life that can add to the student experience.    

As for commuting students, London Higher is currently carrying out a pilot study in this area with findings to be released in early 2019.  Numbers of undergraduates who commute to their place of study are already high and continue to rise.  Long distance commuting and/or travel times impact upon the student experience, and universities are having to look at ways of adapting to the needs of and supporting these ‘non-traditional’ students, but to suggest the prospect of commuting locks students out does not ring true. 

I believe it would be more beneficial to be looking holistically at the range of part-time and flexible provision across the sector.  Reaching out to people from disadvantaged backgrounds, mature students, and those who, for whatever reason, want or need to work as well as study, or who are otherwise unlikely to be able to commit to a full-time programme (whether two years or longer), requires more than a new promotion of fast-track degrees.  Would a white working class young male, or a woman from a BAME background, be likely to rush to sign up to a two year degree? Unlikely.  For other students it may be desirable, if not necessary, to switch between different modes and length of study too.  There is a much more complex spectrum at play in all this.  Two year degrees do work for some and it would be good to see more (of good quality) on offer.  But they are not some type of panacea for higher education – and one size definitely does not fit all.