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.