A degree of brevity

When, as a school leaver in Germany in 1972, I contemplated  becoming a student at a German university, one of the key considerations was the likely duration of my studies. The brother of a school friend of mine was at the time studying economics at a well-known German institution. Actually, I don’t really know whether he was studying or whether he was just hanging around, for he had been registered with the university for a cool seven years on the one programme.

In the event I didn’t at the time go to university, and instead became a banking apprentice. Later I moved to Ireland and studied law in Trinity College Dublin. Even there you could at the time find some students who had been able, probably with the support of wealthy parents, to extend their studies considerably, but on the whole your degree course was going to take four years to complete (as is the case to this day in Scotland). Other Irish universities had mostly three-year programmes.

But what is the most appropriate length for an undergraduate university course? What time is needed to acquire information and knowledge, learn to apply critical assessment and become sufficiently skilled to succeed in examinations and assessments? Should this be determined by pedagogy (but how?) or are other considerations also appropriate?

In this context, two former British cabinet ministers (one Labour, one Conservative) have backed suggestions that in order to avoid excessive student debt and financial opportunism by universities degree courses should be reduced in length to two years.  This would ‘accelerate learning’ and bring forward the students’ capacity to earn money.

I do not myself doubt that two-year courses can be done satisfactorily, but not in all cases and circumstances, and not if work experience is to form any part of the design. The worry is not that such ideas are being floated, but rather that we are being invited to consider them solely on material grounds, rather than through an assessment of pedagogy and scholarship and of the most effective way to acquire judgement and skills.  The question is a legitimate one, but there has to be a better debate about the arguments for and against, rather than just about money.

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4 Comments on “A degree of brevity”

  1. Vince Says:

    I’m sorry but these people shouldn’t be permitted to open an envelope with their fingers if they are that disconnected from the notion of Cause and Effect.
    You allow the limit of ‘x’ making it a self value judgment whether reaching that value has been achieved are are shocked and bemused that every darn one of the Uni’s decided the ‘were worth it’.
    In Ireland we have, as you know, an apt term for this type of thinking, Gobshitery.
    And as to the two year degree idea. All will occur is the first two will be dealt with in other institutions, and called A level plus 1, and A level plus 2.


  2. Asking what the appropriate length of a degree begs the question of how much learning is required to enter a profession. We are now mostly agreed that there is no fixed answer to this and that being a member of a profession requires continuous learning, mixed with work. You might then draw the conclusion that this should be done from the start, mixing work with learning (which is more efficient in terms of use of student time), and even extending the length of time to take a degree. This apprenticeship-style learning is suitable for almost any area of study or profession, can improve the quality of learning and is much cheaper for both the learner and the provider (particularly if technology is appropriately used). And please don’t offend my many friends and family members who did not go to college by suggesting that full-time higher education is necessary for social development.


  3. Scotland of course already has a well-developed system if short cycle higher education, with large programmes of one-year HNCs and two-year HNDs (if taken full time). Frequently they include work experience as part of the curriculum. Several Scottish universities, including your own, recognise HNDs as equivalent to the first two years if a degree.


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