Posted tagged ‘degree length’

University: quiet reflection or sharp, focused study?

February 12, 2010

The British Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, is not perhaps the most popular man right now in academic circles. He is presiding over substantial funding cuts, and in addition seems intent on redefining what a university education is and how universities might best deliver it. He has come in for a fair amount of criticism, some of it no doubt understandable. But what he says in not necessarily out of step with the views now held in industry, politics and maybe even society at large. And because his remit covers the English higher education system (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are separate), it is worth looking at his views more closely.

Perhaps one of the most detailed statements of his approach to date was delivered yesterday in his speech at the Lord Dearing Memorial Conference at the University of Nottingham. At the heart of it was a suggestion that a time of fiscal retrenchment and budget cuts could and should be used to reconsider what society’s expectations are of higher education and what universities should do to meet them. One part of that message was around funding and income, with the suggestion (that I would agree with) that public funding is unlikely to satisfy higher education needs fully and that institutions must actively develop strategies for attracting other income; and that in doing so they must increasingly identify and prioritise their special strengths and differentiated missions.

But it is his other suggestion that I want to refer to here: that there needs to be ‘a greater focus on alternative modes of study’. He went on to explain this in more detail, arguing that ‘part time degrees, shorter and  more intensive courses all offer the potential to lower student support costs, use resources more intensively and improve productivity.’ And here is how he explained why this is needed:

‘That is why, along side traditional three year full time degrees, I want to see part time study, two year Foundation Degrees and three years Honours courses delivered intensively over two years expand as part of the mix.  When their objectives and outcomes are clearly defined, and when they are taught well and properly resourced, there is no sense at all in which these alternatives should be seen as inferior to three year equivalents. And they can be, in many respects, better for students, especially for students without financial resources behind them. Because they enable them to earn and learn. They reduces the amount they have to borrow to get a qualification. And because these flexible kinds of education and training are vital for those who miss out on higher education straight after school the push for two year degrees and wider part time or work-based study should be at the core of the wider participation agenda. Those who argue against it risk painting themselves as defending an institutional inflexibility that doesn’t serve students, and doesn’t get the most out of public investment.’

There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the traditional university programme, delivered over an extended period of time, within an enclosed campus environment and requiring the student’s full-time attention (at least in theory) discourages or even excludes those from disadvantaged backgrounds or those who look for a second chance, later in life, to pursue a degree. Equally there are arguments to suggest that short degree programmes, or programmes focused deliberately on vocational links and outcomes will not adequately open the student’s mind to the intellectual underpinnings of higher education or give them the necessary time and motivation to reflect and adopt a critical perspective.

But then again, an intellectually driven education that can only really attract and retain a social elite may be attractive to that elite, but will otherwise almost certainly consolidate inequities and unequal opportunities.

So it all brings us back again to the dilemma on which all debate should really now be fixed: that the higher education framework that existed from the middle ages until recently has become untenable because it could not reach out to a broader population; but that we still tend to believe that its pedagogical approach was the most effective. We cannot go back to where we were, because society has moved on. But in the era of mass higher education we need to know better than we seem to know now what we want this much larger segment of society to get from their studies and what we therefore want our universities to do. We need to connect pedagogy with social policy, and we need to do that urgently. And we need to do that before we spend more time endlessly obsessing about higher education structures.

Two year degrees?

December 28, 2009

In a recent post here I drew attention to the annual ‘grant letter’ which the UK’s Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Lord Mandelson, had sent to the English founding council. But apart from the issue of university funding that the letter addressed, there was also one other matter raised by Peter Mandelson in passing which has attracted a lot of attention. Here’s what he said:

‘We want to see more programmes that are taken flexibly and part-time and that a learner can access with ease alongside their other commitments. We also wish to see more programmes, such as foundation and fast-track degrees, that can be completed full-time in two years.’ (para. 4)

It would be fair to say that this didn’t go down very well, with almost any audience. Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU, the academics’ trade union), said:

‘Reading between the lines here it sounds like a two-tier university system where the privileged few have the pick of the university park and everyone else has to make do with what they can afford.’

Media comment was also almost universally hostile, as in this example.

In fairness to Peter Mandelson, I’m not wholly sure that he said what has been attributed to him by some of the critics. He did (as seen in the quote above) refer to two-year programmes, but I don’t see the immediate evidence that he was holding this up as the general model to be applied. Rather, he seems to have been concerned with the need to have structured programmes that are accessible to those who are not traditional university students. For all that, he said what he said, and he certainly does seem to be contemplating some two-year courses. And if that is so, it is indeed necessary to examine where such courses would fit into both the Bologna framework and, more generally, our understanding of the pedagogy underlying university degrees. The problem is that the rather high volume of the responses may make a dispassionately analytical discussion with the Secretary of State difficult.

This is also an important topic for us in Ireland, and one that should be addressed in the higher education strategic review now under way, and in the resulting discussion. Right now there are three-year and four-year undergraduate programmes in Ireland, and some niche ones that have other structures. It is time to reach an agreement on what educational aims we expect to see satisfied in degree programmes and how the total period of study affects that.

How many years for a degree?

November 11, 2009

When I last lived in Germany, in the early 1970s (yes, I am that old!), I knew a man who was a student in a southern German university. I could never work out what he was studying, because when I asked him his answers were always very vague. But I did know how long he had been studying, at that time: 12 years and counting. He was an almost permanent student with indulgent parents and a set of personal priorities which, on the whole, didn’t include studying. When I left Germany in 1974 I lost track of him, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to discover that he is still at university.

In the meantime, and across the Atlantic in the United States, Senator Lamar Alexander (Republican) has suggested that in America the standard 4-year undergraduate Bachelor’s degree programme might be reduced to three years. That, of course, is the length of most degree programmes in these islands, though not as it happens in DCU: our standard programmes are 4-year ones.

And moving even further away from the my long-term student friend in Germany, when I was in my last job in the University of Hull, we regularly had some colleagues proposing that we should go for a ‘three-semester year’ (oh, I do hate the ignorance of the classics evident in such a concept) and offer programmes that could be there and gone within two years.

This, however, is another one of those issues that cannot be addressed unless and until we have a shared understanding of the demands and the nature of a university degree programme. DCU’s four years are justified by us in part because this includes a six month or more work placement, which is counted towards the final degree result. But could it be said that a 2-year programme could convey the same knowledge and understanding as a three- or four-year course? Equally, does there come a point at which a student’s results-free academic longevity undermines the academic purposes of the institution? Is there a need for all universities to have the same pattern of degree programmes, or could some have 3-year degree programmes while others have four?

For myself, I welcome at least some flexibility in this matter, as this provides an opportunity to develop and maintain some diversity of mission. Equally the question of affordability will have to be faced. But in order to conduct intelligently whatever debate may take place on this matter, I would suggest that we start by assembling the arguments for our chosen degree length, and asking ourselves whether these still stand up to scrutiny.

The spirit in which we should conduct this analysis should be one of respect for intellectual rigour, diversity of mission and affordability.