Does size matter – how long should degree programmes be?

Every so often when someone raises the question of whether two, three or four-year degree programmes are most appropriate I am reminded of an old friend of mine in Germany who, when I last had contact with him, had been a student in one undergraduate course for 12 years and counting, and with few signs that he might want to bring this pleasant episode in his life to an early end. I’ve lost track of him, so some 35 years on he may, for all I know, still be there. Bologna and related  reforms may put an end to this sort of lifestyle, but have we really worked out how long a degree programme should take in order for it to strike the right balance between pedagogy and scholarship on the one hand, and funding and career planning on the other?

There is no standard answer to this. English undergraduate degrees take three years mostly, as do degrees in most Irish universities (the exceptions being Trinity College Dublin and Dublin City University, whose programmes take four years). Scotland has four year honours programmes, as do many American universities.

In Scotland one university is about to experiment a little without formally changing its existing practice. The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) is working on a plan to bring forward the first year of undergraduate study to the final year at secondary school, during which the initial studies would be carried out online, presumably alongside the normal school studies. In a report in the Herald newspaper, the university’s Principal explains the plan as follows:

‘Our aim is to shorten the period between the final year of school and the four-year university course by a year,” said Mr Fraser. “One way of doing this is to persuade schools to give a full first year of university education to appropriate sixth year students as an alternative to coming to university. That would enable them to go straight into the second year of the course when they come to university.’

Has a four-year degree become unsustainable, or are there ways of making it more flexible so that it is manageable for today’s student body? Indeed, to what extent is it still reasonable to expect students to undertake their courses on a full-time basis? Is there scope for the two-year degrees that former British Business Secretary Peter Mandelson called for? Do we really have a sense of what it is, in terms of depth of study and the time it takes to achieve this, university degrees should represent? Is there indeed a common currency in this at all, Bologna notwithstanding?

It is time to have a much better, pedagogy-inspired debate on undergraduate education.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education

Tags: ,

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

7 Comments on “Does size matter – how long should degree programmes be?”

  1. Niall Says:

    UHI: I find it difficult to imagine the students coping with their first year studies online at the same time as their A levels (Highers? in Scotland).
    Will they be doing the first year studies before they have qualified for acceptance? I’m looking at this from an Irish perspective so maybe I’m missing something

  2. cormac Says:

    “English undergraduate degrees take three years mostly, as do degrees in most Irish universities” A pity to see this misconception repeated yet again. All of the universities of the former NUI have four year degrees in science and engineering(it is only the Humanities that have three year degrees)

  3. Fred Says:

    To me the 3 years bachelors is already too short so this drives to a relatively specialized degrees. However a lot of European countries and US have 4 year degrees for social sciences and 4-5 for engineering. Shortening the study period may have implications both from the study side and the pedagogy. However, I think that there should be a focus for other non-university qualifications for those who don’t want to spend 4 years of their lives. But to shorten the Bachelor period is like pushing everybody to graduate with a university degree.

  4. Perry Share Says:

    The vast majority of honours degrees in the IoT sector are 4 years in duration. They often contain a significant period of work placement. Also they allow for a more diverse learning experience.

  5. Al Says:

    It is also important to look at the pre entry situation also. A main point of reference to this question is what has happened prior to third level entry. If there has not been the necessary development prior to third level then…..


  6. The professional/vocational model sees university education as just one part of a longer and larger apprenticeship, and it’s worth situating discussion on the length of degrees in that context. For instance, it takes a minimum of *eight* years to become a chartered engineer in Ireland: four years to get a university degree and a further four years of “Initial Professional Development”, where the novice develops the competences to apply what was learned in the degree programme to the solution of engineering problems. These second four years also involve training and participation in appropriate professional development courses, and they conclude with a rigorous assessment.

    With such professional programmes, and perhaps with many others, the appropriate unit of analysis is thus perhaps the eight years required to become a chartered engineer, rather than the four (or three) years of the university degree. The more relevant question then is about the nature of the mix between education and practical experience throughout these eight years.

    In addition, one take on the Bologna model is that the masters programme should be the norm for higher education, and so five years would be the expected length of time in university (though perhaps not consecutively).


  7. Education works independent of time. That’s what makes discussion of programme length difficult to move forward. An element of structure is required, but there are no hard and fast rules.

    Once you factor in each individual’s commitments, reasons for studying, course structure, and so on, it’s clear that time becomes restrictive as a broad brush indicator.

    Time needn’t stand out as the guiding element. It is simply a factor amongst many factors. So I agree, the HE debate needs to be more pedagogy-inspired.

    Vince Cable, the UK Business Secretary, is keen on the possibility of two-year degrees and more flexible part-time routes, and he reiterated this in a speech yesterday – http://bit.ly/hpuSYz – but this should be explored in conjunction with educational impact, not just funding.


Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: