So what do we think a ‘degree’ is?

Here’s an interesting snippet of information: in England a growing number of people are entering universities and colleges to study for ‘foundation degrees’. These are two-year courses involving work placements, which the student can do on a full-timke or part-time basis. They can then either take the qualification, or use the credits earned as part of a route to an undergraduate honours degree award. Over 300 universities and colleges, including some older universities, offer these programmes, and according to the latest information they are growing fast in popularity. They also fit in with the views expressed by English Universities Minister David Willetts that students should seek out alternatives to the traditional university degree.

There is little doubt that more people need education and training to improve their career opportunities and maximise the skills available to society. There is little doubt also that universities should make contributions to meet this demand. But along the way, it may be necessary to look again at what constitutes a ‘degree’ (and of course there is a Bologna dimension to this). I am clear in my own mind that the traditional undergraduate degree is not the only workable or useful model; but equally I believe that not every training programme should be classified as a ‘degree’. As governments push higher education institutions to offer courses that are modelled on rather different considerations than just academic ones, it might be worthwhile looking again at the portfolio of higher education and asking how it can be made both academically valuable and socially productive. That debate needs to be held in more explicit terms than it has been to date.

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15 Comments on “So what do we think a ‘degree’ is?”

  1. wendymr Says:

    Equally, there are the US ‘Associates’ degrees, which are also two-year programmes. In each case, though, I can see that the nomenclature can be confusing.

    I do quite like the Ontario model, where degrees are offered in universities and the community colleges offer two- and three-year diplomas geared towards the labour market. Want to be a medical radiation therapist, or a web developer, or perhaps an industrial electrician? Get a college diploma. Though it’s not clear why – except through some kind of probably archaic division occupations between those viewed as ‘professional’ and those viewed as less important – some careers are accessible through degrees rather than diplomas. For example, nursing, social work and physiotherapy require bachelor’s degrees, while radiation therapy, laboratory technology and respiratory technology require diplomas.

  2. Al Says:

    Isnt it a posh name for an apprenticeship.
    Germany does something like this, doesnt it?
    There are a few hundred apprenticeships out there, with the academy for later oppurtunities?

  3. Fred Says:

    They are not bad in principle.I think these qualifications give 2nd and 3rd opportunities to a lot of people. However a degree is not just a sum of credit points…there is a danger in this…

  4. Perry Share Says:

    In Ireland we have long had an equivalent of the UK Foundation Degree. We call these Higher Certificates (formerly National Certificates) and they are equivalent to 120 ECTS credits. The ‘ordinary degree’ is 180 credits, and this used to be known as the ‘national diploma’ until the National Qualification framework was brought in. These qualifications are almost completely limited to the IoT sector.

    An honours degree is either 180 or 240 credits and this is where it can get confusing. The 4 year (240 ECTS) honours degree is standard in Trinity College Dublin and the IoT sector; in the NUI the three year honours degree has been standard. It can be argued that the 4 years is appropriate for the IoT sector as it reflects the transition through the rungs of the ‘ladder’ system and the much greater diversity of students. Crucially it also reflects the significant applied/work place element of these programmes.

    Australia has a similar system – 3 year degrees and an add-on one year for an honours degree. The difference is that only a minority of students take out an honours degree in Australia; in Ireland most people aim to get one.

    Some IoTs are now moving towards 3 year/180 ECTS honours degrees – copying the NUI model. Personally, given the complexity of many professional and vocational programmes (typically they include ‘academic’ and skills-based modules as well as a substantial work placement) I would not favour this shift to 3 year/120 ECTS programmes, but I can see that it relates to competition for students who may see a 4-year programme as too long an investment.


  5. There are two forces driving this move. Firstly, all 3rd level colleges seem in a very short space of time to develop a longing to be universities. Universities confer degrees. Therefore, …

    Secondly, because degrees carry status, that’s what students want. Frankly calling a training course a degree so as maximise student numbers or income is not very different to the increasingly popular short-cut “doctorates” for senior managers.

    • Perry Share Says:

      It would be interesting to look at the similarities and differences between ‘training courses’ and ‘degrees’ One could argue that the most sought after degree programmes in Ireland (as elsewhere) such as medicine, law and architecture, are in fact training programmes for the professions.

      The emergence of the ‘professional doctorate’ and the ‘practice-based doctorate’ are also facts of life, and reflect the fact that there is more than one way to develop expertise and reflective capacity.

      The world of academia is a rapidly changing one, and has witnessed huge transformations over the last decade. It is likely to experience even greater change over the next. Our understandings of the meanings (formal and cultural) of various qualifications is also going to change: as is the case in many European countries that are having to adapt to the post-Bologna world.


      • Of course a great deal has changed and will change. Moreover, there are indeed lots of ways to become educated (I’d be the last to discount private effort or the “university of life”.) but this doesn’t mean that “degree”, “masters” and “doctorate” have to be applied all over the place. My point is that “degree” and “doctorate” are marketable and will be used. Those versed in the truth behind the labels will have no difficulty making distinctions but in society generally their status will go unquestioned.

        • Perry Share Says:

          I’d agree. That’s why I am not very happy with the ‘Foundation degrees’ in the UK. Given that many UK universities now run on 12 or even 10 week semesters, the level of engagement that a student has to be involved in to obtain such a degree is pretty minimal. It also raises issues about the status and future of the UK ‘Higher National Diploma’ or HND, a 2-year qualification which is also offered by many institutions in the PLC sector in Ireland.

          • wendymr Says:

            Though I will say, from an international perspective, that employers around the world have no idea what status a HND/HNC confers. Should they regard it as the equivalent of a college diploma? Is it merely a short post-experience training course? Is it a two-day programme or a two-year one? Classroom-based, or portfolio assessment?

            When I have encountered clients from the UK with either of the Higher National qualifications, I’ve had to recommend that they pay to have equivalency evaluation done as soon as possible, whereas British immigrants with university degrees – whether from universities or (pre-1992) polytechnics – don’t need to do this as British (and I’d say Irish) degrees are accepted as at least equivalent.

          • wendymr Says:

            …and I meant to add that in one case the equivalency assessment (by a highly reputable agency) rated a HND as degree-equivalent…

  6. Perry Share Says:

    The UK systems seem to change with alarming frequency – everything from GCSEs, AS levels and all that school stuff, to HNDs, HNCs, NDs and other sub-degree qualifications. Plus there seems to be a distinct lack of enthusiasm for using the ECTS system over there.

    At least in Ireland we have a) a National Qualifications framework that incorporates all Irish qualifications and b) we use the ECTS system which is a recognised Europe-wide system. This is very useful for translation of qualifications across boundaries, both for people coming into Ireland and those going out to other EU states.

    Even the universities are beginning to get their heads around this!🙂


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