How many years for a degree?

When I last lived in Germany, in the early 1970s (yes, I am that old!), I knew a man who was a student in a southern German university. I could never work out what he was studying, because when I asked him his answers were always very vague. But I did know how long he had been studying, at that time: 12 years and counting. He was an almost permanent student with indulgent parents and a set of personal priorities which, on the whole, didn’t include studying. When I left Germany in 1974 I lost track of him, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to discover that he is still at university.

In the meantime, and across the Atlantic in the United States, Senator Lamar Alexander (Republican) has suggested that in America the standard 4-year undergraduate Bachelor’s degree programme might be reduced to three years. That, of course, is the length of most degree programmes in these islands, though not as it happens in DCU: our standard programmes are 4-year ones.

And moving even further away from the my long-term student friend in Germany, when I was in my last job in the University of Hull, we regularly had some colleagues proposing that we should go for a ‘three-semester year’ (oh, I do hate the ignorance of the classics evident in such a concept) and offer programmes that could be there and gone within two years.

This, however, is another one of those issues that cannot be addressed unless and until we have a shared understanding of the demands and the nature of a university degree programme. DCU’s four years are justified by us in part because this includes a six month or more work placement, which is counted towards the final degree result. But could it be said that a 2-year programme could convey the same knowledge and understanding as a three- or four-year course? Equally, does there come a point at which a student’s results-free academic longevity undermines the academic purposes of the institution? Is there a need for all universities to have the same pattern of degree programmes, or could some have 3-year degree programmes while others have four?

For myself, I welcome at least some flexibility in this matter, as this provides an opportunity to develop and maintain some diversity of mission. Equally the question of affordability will have to be faced. But in order to conduct intelligently whatever debate may take place on this matter, I would suggest that we start by assembling the arguments for our chosen degree length, and asking ourselves whether these still stand up to scrutiny.

The spirit in which we should conduct this analysis should be one of respect for intellectual rigour, diversity of mission and affordability.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university


You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

8 Comments on “How many years for a degree?”

  1. Perry Share Says:

    The way we do it at my institution, four years for an honours degree incorporating a substantial (1 year) work placement or practical component, seems about right to me. I can see an argument for a 3-year programme in a narrow academic or professional field, though for school leavers the 4-year maturational process works well. Mature age students may perceive they have less time, and thus are often more instrumental in their approach to study and their increasing numbers, as I suspect may be the case in Hull, will influence this debate. I would imagine that the Bologna process will, or already has, put an end to the Continental notion of the eternal student. A pity maybe, especially for certain branches of the culture industries?

    • Perry, the problem we all face (particularly those of us with 4-year degrees) is there will be sustained pressure, not just from governments but from others too, to reduce the length of degree programmes. It may be quite hard to hold the line!

      • Perry Share Says:

        Presumably the Bologna standards will assist here, in terms of the minimum credit requirement for a degree. Already, the teaching contact hours and other resources allocated for an ECTS(European Credit unit)are significantly lower in Ireland (and the UK)than elsewhere. An attempt to push towards 3 year degrees may be stymied by our need to maintain some parity with the rest of the EU.

        I also think that the universities, and to a lesser extent the ITs, need to push much harder to incorporate work placements, internships, semesters abroad &c as part of their standard educational offering. This would help to justify longer programmes, as well as being educationally valuable for many students and courses of study.

  2. Aidan Says:

    I agree that some flexibility is desirable. Mature students, for instance, may well want to study for a full calendar year and graduate quickly. However, I am not sure that it is deairable to have too many very young graduates. In the past I have met Irish people who finished school at 16 and graduated at 19. To me that seems far too young. I would rather that young people had at least a year or two following a general Engineering or Science or Arts direction before specializing.

  3. k denny Says:

    I think a 2 year bachelor’s degree is a horrendous idea. But I do wonder why it takes TCD 4 years to teach material that most other universities in these islands (not the Scots) can do in 3? And why the taxpayer pays for it. And no, its nothing to do with the fact you can call your TCD BA an MA. The DCU case seems to be different so I will exempt them!
    Of course if students paid (a novel idea, I admit) & the fee was per course then they could take as long as they like. Though you might want a surcharge to deter the perennial student after some point.

  4. Vincent Says:

    Given that on some courses, first year is just to get people up to speed, some three year degrees are in reality two. Where in some Colleges there is the requirement that two totally different courses are studied simultaneously.

  5. Facebook Applications Says:

    OK, so I’ve read your article – IMHO it’s pretty venomous … but you seem quite passionate about the issue. So, what are you going to do about it ? or is this it … much finger pointing and abuse – but not much substance..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: