The flexible degree programme

I used to have a German friend who was by inclination, temperament and vocation a university student. When I last had contact with him in the mid-1980s he had been what we would call an undergraduate student, in the same course, for nearly nine years, and he was showing absolutely no sign of wanting to bring that phase of his life to an end. For all I know he is a student still. In this part of the world we have taken a very different approach: your degree programme is, probably, three or four years long, and most students will complete it in that timeframe; a small number may fail enough examinations to extend their progress by a year. But that’s it, really.

Our approach to this has been guided by economic prudence – it is expensive to keep a student on a course – and educational principle – students should focus on their studies and complete them in a timely manner. This has been based on the implied assumption that a student is, usually, a full-time learner. But a lot has been changing. As participation in higher education has grown dramatically, so the student body has become much less homogeneous and different persons have different needs. For example, a significant number of students nowadays help fund their time at university by engaging in what is often nearly full-time paid employment. This can result in a situation where the student struggles to keep up with their studies for lack of time.

It may be that we need to find some middle way between the not uncommon permanent student found in Germany and the strictly regulated programme duration in our own universities. As universities are increasingly operating modular systems it should become easier to design pathways that leave the student with more flexibility (for example as to how many modules to take in a given year) while still maintaining a degree of supervision and proper academic rigour. This, for example, is one of the aspects of DCU’s Academic Framework for Innovation.

Neither our student body nor their expectations and needs are the same today as they were when higher education was much more elitist. Not only do we now have many more students who need to work to have an adequate income to live off, we have more mature people whose professional expectations have been overturned by economic events and who may benefit from retraining, but who cannot simply slot into the old ‘full-time’ courses. We need to ensure that we support the drive to open up higher education much more, and we need to be flexible in pursuit of it.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university

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2 Comments on “The flexible degree programme”


  1. Learn from the Open University. They’ve been doing it for years and they’re rather good at it.

  2. Perry Share Says:

    as has the Institute of Technology sector!


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