What’s another year?

How long should a degree programme fit for the modern world be? Two years? Three? Four? More? This is an issue that is certain to be increasingly hotly debated, as both universities and governments search for ways in which public money can be saved.

Right now there are European processes that are moving towards some standardisation regarding programme length, but in the meantime the pressure on institutions is to make them shorter. This is a matter of special interest in Scotland, where most degree programmes run for four years (as against the English standard of three years). But now Dundee University has decided to give a lead, and so it has announced that in future some (but not all) of its courses will be shorter. This has created some negative reactions amongst educationalists, but has also brought out some supporters of the change.

In what way does this matter? It does so primarily because the duration of a degree programme should not be seen to be just an organisational matter. It should be part of a significant pedagogical debate in the academy. It may well be that, at the end of this process and Bologna notwithstanding, there will be a greater variety of undergraduate programmes, with an array of teaching methods and pedagogical perspectives. The length of a programme may come to be determined by such perspectives.

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11 Comments on “What’s another year?”


  1. The issue for many students in Australia, where the standard degree length is also three years, is that our year looks to them to be 26 weeks long. Many are already using the summer session, when a few subjects are offered mostly to other students trying to make up for lost time, to fast track their degrees. Others are turning to credit overload, taking more subjects at a time in the main semesters than we would advise, particularly given their very high levels of paid employment. Still others are using blended or fully online subjects to multitask university participation with work in a way that is really about the length of time they’re able or prepared to wait before launching themselves professionally.

    So we are already experiencing some informal, student-driven contraction of the time we imagine that it should take to complete am undergraduate degree. This has certainly raised questions about the gap between our assumptions and their experiences of pace.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    It must be me being naive when it comes to the refined world of HE policy making but wouldn’t it be more appropriate if the decision to have three year degree programmes was taken *after* the significant pedagogical debate had taken place in the (Scottish) academy instead of being a reaction to a changed economic landscape (a situation already in place for months) and prompt by competition among Scottish HE providers?

  3. Steve B Says:

    My sons 4 year degree could easly have been done in two due to the limited number of class hours he has. Insufficient class contact hours leads to students losing interest.
    Suggest the rather more airy fairy pedagogical debate nonsence is put to one side until the basics of poorly organised degrees is sorted out.
    Sudents paying for 4 years worth of a course which should be done in two is not acceptable.

    • anna notaro Says:

      mybe you should check the meaning of the term pedagogy before disming it as ‘airy fairy’??

    • Jilly Says:

      my own university (like most others) pitches its teaching to presume that class-time accounts for approx. 20% of student work on any particular module, including time for researching and producing assessment work. So a module which has 1 hour a week in class should be accompanied by an average of 4 hours extra work by the student, in the form of reading, research and assessment-preparation. This is all explained to the students when they first arrive, and if they don’t then do it, that is their responsibility. That’s one of the crucial differences between school and university – students are expected to take responsibility for their own learning, guided and helped by us, but not spoon-fed.

      • Vincent Says:

        Bwahahahahahahahahahah-snort-gasp Hahahahahahahahahah

        • Jilly Says:

          I said it’s our assumption/instruction to them Vincent. I didn’t say they all do it! But as I said, if they don’t, that’s their problem and their loss, to be blunt. Most 2:2 degrees are given to people who just couldn’t arsed going to the library.


  4. I think a more logical and flexible system needs to follow through to masters level. In Ireland the situation where someone can get a bachelors and a masters in four years whilst another can get them in six is odd. Unless there is a justification, particularly if students and going to pay more of the economic cost of their courses, this will lead to students picking shorter and cheaper courses.

  5. Eddie Says:

    Scottish universities are trying all sorts of gimmicks-reducing the tuition fees, 3 year degree courses, and the St Andrews may even throw in free golf course membership, just to attract the cash cows-the English students. Free tuition for locals has to be paid for in one way or another. The third way is to merge universities which the Scottish secretary is attempting with a shot gun. The heavy marketing by many continental universities in England where courses are delivered in English means that Scots have to do even more besides hoovering up students in overseas countries.


  6. I think that this is a much more difficult problem than we realise. And I feel that there are two serious problems with Bologna that do not help.

    1. There seems to be an implicit assumption in Bologna that we can measure learning by defining outcomes at various levels. However, this seems to break down in institutions, when, having defined outcomes, they revert to justifying the quantity of content by describing the student effort in hours that is required to achieve these outcomes (although to be fair many say that these are average figures).

    2. In the interests of egalitarianism Bologna seems to want all courses at a specific level to take the same amount of time and does not wish to admit that some more talented students can achieve this in a much reduced time period and that some institutions are capable of recruiting more of these capable students and running these courses in a shorter time period.

    One result of this in Ireland is that you can get it takes 4 years to get an honour degree in Science in all the higher education institutions in Ireland, but we all know that some produce much more capable graduates than others. (Not necessarily to the credit of the these institutions who generally achieve better outputs because they had better inputs only) So employers know that all honours degrees are not equal and we are back to the old days of asking people where they did their degree. This is hardly what Bologna was tying to achieve.

    It also causes problems when evaluating people for entry into higher level courses like Masters degrees.

    To be honest I don’t see a way out of this because I am not convinced that anyone has come up with a precise method of measuring learning that is any better than the intuitive judgement of a good academic. For that reason, i would tend to say, “Let universities do what they like and be judged on the quality of their output by employers and other institutions”. Let the market decide.


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