Matt Waddup: Don't do things on the cheap with these cut-price degrees

THE Business Secretary, Vince Cable, last week called on the higher education sector "to do more for less". It's the kind of lazy thinking that we have come to expect from this Government and masks the fact that UK universities already receive 10 per cent less in public funds than the OECD (leading economies) average.

As we enter this new period of so-called "austerity", all manner of cost cutting initiatives are likely to announced and it is important that we as a sector make the case for investing in education and reject any notion of "doing things on the cheap".

Two-year "fast track" degrees were first mooted back in 2003 but, with savage cuts planned for higher education, they are now back on the agenda. A select number of universities already offer them and they

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have a number of high profile supporters, including former business secretary, Lord Mandelson.

Proponents of two-year degrees say they are a more flexible way of learning, but in truth they are little more than education on the cheap and would devalue our university sector. Moreover, how on earth could we deliver them?

How can squeezing three-year degrees into two years be achieved on the back of swingeing cuts to higher education and without seriously

impacting on students and the research work of staff?

The reason our universities command respect the world over is because of the expert level of teaching and research they provide. Without proper funding and the necessary number of teachers, two-year degrees would require universities to axe some of our world-renowned and respected research, or to eat into academics' research time.

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Not sensible when one considers that, with just one per cent of the population, we produce 7.9 per cent of the world's research publications and 12 per cent of all citations.

Let's be clear here. Two-year degrees are incredibly teacher intensive and would stop staff from carrying out vital research and pastoral duties. Our universities are places of learning not academic sweatshops and we need to get away from the idea that more can be delivered for


As one of our members from the University of Liverpool, Karen Evans, so aptly put: "Accelerated degrees have no educational value and will stop students from having a well-rounded education. As well as placing a huge strain on staff, it will also mean an additional burden on

students, many of whom have to work through the summer to pay back the debts of tuition fees."

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There is a very real danger that two-year degrees will further

exacerbate the gap between the rich and poor on campus. Not all

subjects can be studied in two years and when the course can be

condensed, the full university experience will be diminished.

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Two-year degrees will mean that the CV-enhancing opportunities

available at university – running the students' union, editing a paper or getting involved in voluntary work – will become the preserve of students not forced to cram their studies. What happens to those students, as Karen Evans highlighted, who have to work over the summer months to keep their heads above the water? How will two-year degrees be of any benefit to them?

I believe that two-year degrees are driven by economic rather than simply educational objectives. I think it's no accident that Peter Mandelson announced an expansion of two-year degrees at the same time as he outlined major cuts in public funding. A similar experiment in the 1990s (the Extended Academic Year) was piloted during a period in which resources for higher education were decreased.

Supporters of two-year degrees suggest that they will make higher

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education more attractive to working-class families and could therefore be a key part of the widening participation agenda. This is based on the assumption that working-class students are more "debt averse" and are less interested in the "cultural benefits" of an undergraduate education than their middle-class counterparts.

However, a recent evaluation of the introduction of fast-track degree programmes revealed that "evidence in support of such views is currently thin".

In the UK, the only prolonged experience of the accelerated honours degree has been at Buckingham University (an institution with fewer than 900 students). More worryingly, a review of flexible learning in 2006 found "very limited interest" in fast-track degrees and a "strong preference for three-year over two-year degrees" among Year 12 students considering going to university.

I am a father and like other parents I want my son to have the best education possible. If two-year degrees are a sign of things to come, then I am worried. I totally reject the notion of "piling 'em high and teaching 'em cheap" in a two-tier system designed to mask the failings of the Government to properly fund higher education.

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It shouldn't matter if you are from Beeston or Ilkley, Seacroft or Sheffield Hallam, every child has a right to a good education. I will support two-year degrees when the careers advisers at Eton and Harrow are recommending them to their pupils.

Matt Waddup is head of campaigns for the University and College Union (UCU).