This week, the government announced plans to unveil new two-year degree courses in England. These fast-track university courses would, in theory, be of the same standard as their three-year counterparts, but would cost as much as £14,000 per year – an annual fee level higher than that in many US state universities. The Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, argued that these courses would be beneficial to poorer students, as it would allow them to save on a year of university living costs. Two-year degree courses are currently offered at a few UK universities but for the standard £9,000 per year. A rise in annual tuition fees would allow courses such as these to become more widespread, and would be damaging to the higher education system as a whole.
Higher education is obviously not for everyone, but it can be really rewarding for those who do want to pursue it. This experience would be butchered by condensing it into two years. Johnson says it will not be a “dilution of quality”, but it is difficult to imagine how this can be true. A great deal of the quality of a university education is found in discovering and exploring new interests and ideas, both within and outwith academia. Many people do not know exactly what they want to do when they finish school; arguably, this is one of the strengths of the Scottish system, which offers 4-year degrees with the option of taking outside courses. There clearly would be no time for this in a two-year degree, which would centre exclusively on completing endless deadlines.
There is a mental health crisis across UK universities, and squeezing a workload designed to be spread across three years into two will only exacerbate that. Underlying problems with depression and anxiety are aggravated by stress, and by offering such an intense degree for the reason that it will save students money on living costs expects unrealistically high standards from students. Added to the stress of leaving university with thousands of pounds of debt – as students would still be, regardless of one less year of living costs – the intensity of these courses will be unhealthy. Whilst, obviously, no one would be forced to pick a two year course over the normal three, by advertising these degrees as a way of saving on one year of living costs, many students will undoubtedly feel pressured to choose less debt over their mental health. This is a dangerous standard to be setting.
Ultimately, this is a just another way in which higher education is being commodified at the expense of both students and lecturers. These degrees will be detrimental to the learning process. Lecturers, as well as students, will be under immense pressure to complete syllabi, at the cost of a fall in teaching quality. Lecturers will also have less time for research, which is a key component of what universities have to offer. Two-year degrees will be focused on short-term memory and churning out assignments, without the time to properly consider and discuss ideas or information. This time is integral to the learning process – when you cram for an exam the night before, you quickly forget what you’ve learned once the pressure is off. Principally, higher education should be about developing skills rather than amassing information which, for many degrees, will be (in and of itself) of little use after graduation day. For many, these skills take time to learn and develop, and not everyone comes to university having had the same amount of practice to the same standard. On average, the first year of a Classics degree will obviously be more challenging for someone from a state school than for an Eton pupil with a Latin tutor. Having the first year of a degree ungraded is important not least because it tries to get students on an equal footing, but also practice skills with feedback before it all begins to count toward their final mark.
Two-year degrees will be more beneficial to for-profit companies than to students, as the government will lift the £9,000 tuition cap for them. As the Universities and College Union argued, this is the real aim of the plan – it is a way of ushering in higher fees under the guise of lower living costs and social mobility, for what will be a lower standard of education. The cap is already being raised for three-year degrees this year; as of September, the fee cap will be £9,250. It will continue to increase, and introducing courses that cost £14,000 a year will help normalise this rise for three-year degree courses too. UK university education is going in the direction of the US – increasingly unaffordable and concerned with churning out graduates with degrees just for the sake of having degrees. Johnson presents two-year degrees as a way of opening up higher education to more students, but he didn’t seem particularly concerned about disadvantaged students’ livings costs when the Conservatives scrapped maintenance grants in September 2016. If the Conservatives really cared about opening up higher education to more people, two-year courses would at least be offered at a lower overall tuition rate than £28,000. These fast-track courses are part and parcel of the process of selling off education to the highest bidder, of creating “academic sweatshops”, and is a fundamentally flawed view of education, at any level.
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