Two year degrees?

In a recent post here I drew attention to the annual ‘grant letter’ which the UK’s Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Lord Mandelson, had sent to the English founding council. But apart from the issue of university funding that the letter addressed, there was also one other matter raised by Peter Mandelson in passing which has attracted a lot of attention. Here’s what he said:

‘We want to see more programmes that are taken flexibly and part-time and that a learner can access with ease alongside their other commitments. We also wish to see more programmes, such as foundation and fast-track degrees, that can be completed full-time in two years.’ (para. 4)

It would be fair to say that this didn’t go down very well, with almost any audience. Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU, the academics’ trade union), said:

‘Reading between the lines here it sounds like a two-tier university system where the privileged few have the pick of the university park and everyone else has to make do with what they can afford.’

Media comment was also almost universally hostile, as in this example.

In fairness to Peter Mandelson, I’m not wholly sure that he said what has been attributed to him by some of the critics. He did (as seen in the quote above) refer to two-year programmes, but I don’t see the immediate evidence that he was holding this up as the general model to be applied. Rather, he seems to have been concerned with the need to have structured programmes that are accessible to those who are not traditional university students. For all that, he said what he said, and he certainly does seem to be contemplating some two-year courses. And if that is so, it is indeed necessary to examine where such courses would fit into both the Bologna framework and, more generally, our understanding of the pedagogy underlying university degrees. The problem is that the rather high volume of the responses may make a dispassionately analytical discussion with the Secretary of State difficult.

This is also an important topic for us in Ireland, and one that should be addressed in the higher education strategic review now under way, and in the resulting discussion. Right now there are three-year and four-year undergraduate programmes in Ireland, and some niche ones that have other structures. It is time to reach an agreement on what educational aims we expect to see satisfied in degree programmes and how the total period of study affects that.

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5 Comments on “Two year degrees?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Opening up alternative routes to (and through) higher education is a good idea and will benefit those who did not have the opportunity to go the traditonal route. By and large these will be people from low income backgrounds. A great idea. We need more of this here too.
    If by “2 year degree” he means the American concept, which is essentially a diploma which acts as a stepping stone to a regular “4 year degree” that would be fine too. But I fear not.
    Pedagogically, doing a regular bachelors degree in 2 years is horrendous: education takes time. It would probably mean doing 3 “semesters” in a year. So universities would be pressured into providing summer courses. Most academics will not want to do that as thats when we get a lot of our research done so all sorts will be dragged in to provide them. A bad concept, all round.
    Never mind Bologna, the idea is just baloney.

  2. Vincent Says:

    If, and I suspect what Mandelson is on about, that the programmes are full time, 48 weeks, ultra intensive and as if one is working. Further, I expect in a re-training roll where the basic foundation is in place from a degree now out of date in its action.
    There are certain IT courses that do not require a person who is re-training to take years one and two. But where they do not fit an post-grad either.

    Sally Hunt was reacting to who was speaking rather than what was being said.

  3. iainmacl Says:

    Sally Hunt was indeed reflecting who was speaking, Vincent, and for those of us who have experienced Peter Mandelson in the past then it is very difficult to treat any single statement on its own literal meaning. The whole proposal is made not in the context of a general reflection about pedagogy, flexibility etc but in a letter announcing new cutbacks, after all, so it is also important that individual sentences are not de-contextualised. The statement about heading towards a two tier system seems like an exageration based on Mandelson’s particular statement in this letter, but it is not when based on wider comments from him and others in government and combined with the remarks about the replacement for the RAE having to concentrate research in a small number of institutions. There are very strong pressures in England towards the development of teaching-only institutions and towards opening up the sector to private providers by relaxing restrictions on the word ‘university’ etc.

    • Vincent Says:

      And Gussie Fink-Nottle and the rest of the Drones if they get in in June-ish would not do something worse. For God sake, that shower have a picture of pedagogical life hanging someplace just before the Establishment of TCD by ERI.
      Further, in the real world, Mandelson is like Kryptonite to the Tory party in exactly the same way as Blair for he is seen by some as being one of the Party and might be Labour is not the source of all evil, afterall.

      And the word ‘University’ is and as far as I can find has been in that neither fish foul nor good red herring world, where Private/Royal/Establishment/Public and in certain circumstances like Kings Cambridge semi-religious, all mean the same thing. Also, as far I can see the Jesuits in the States do a goodish job and except for the odd fuss about Crosses in public areas, quietly.

  4. kevin denny Says:

    While it would be foolish, in a UK context, to ignore where Mandelson is coming from, in terms of the debate here I would say it is essential to de-contextualize the remarks.
    There are real choices to be faced by higher education here in Ireland and what Mr Mandelson had for breakfast has no bearing on it.
    So the important questions are: do we think 2 year bachelor’s degrees are a good idea? What are the costs & benefits?

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