Two-year degrees: the solution to the drop in mature student numbers?

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Two-year degrees won’t be right for every university. But for those they suit, they’re a great way to reach underrepresented student groups

Two-year degrees won’t be right for every university. But for those they suit, they’re a great way to reach underrepresented student groups

Wednesday 13 September 2017

Last modified on Wednesday 13 September 2017

Accelerated two-year degrees have caused a serious stir among universities. Many institutions – especially the more traditional – are concerned about set-up costs, including investment in facilities and additional staff required for teaching and admissions. Some have questioned the value of two-year degrees more broadly. It’s clear that they’re not for everyone – but that doesn’t mean they’re a bad idea.

Introducing two-year degrees in February, universities minister, Jo Johnson, said they would offer students greater levels of flexibility in learning. After his announcement, the Department for Education responded with a consultation. It elicited mixed views [pdf]. While there were signs of demand from students and employers, traditional universities argued that the complexity of each year’s learning material in the three-year degree corresponds to the growing maturity of students over those years, and that this system can’t be adapted.

It is true that offering accelerated degrees is complicated. But for institutions unencumbered by these restrictions, these courses will provide a real opportunity to offer higher education to groups that could have been excluded.

As a contributing member to the Flowers committee inquiry into the organisation of the academic year, GSM London became one of the first colleges in England to pilot and offer a full-scale implementation of accelerated degrees in 1994.

Our decision to provide accelerated degrees came as a response to a gap that we identified in the market: mature learners who wished to gain new skills and return to the labour force at the earliest opportunity.

Our experience has confirmed this. Mature students want the option of completing degrees in two rather than three years so that they can quickly return to the world of work. This is particularly true among those from less privileged backgrounds who don’t have the luxury of dropping out of the workforce for longer than necessary. They are also an important group to target, since numbers have halved over the past decade.

It is undoubtedly true that some students entering university directly from sixth form may need the gentler transition a three-year degree offers, or prefer the extended period for self-discovery and to gain maturity. But mature students’ needs are very different to younger students.

Far from diminishing the intellectual journey, my experience with students suggests that the two-year course enables them to develop a level of sustained immersion with the higher education experience – something that the traditional three-year model often fails to deliver.

A two-year degree – which provides roughly the same amount of holiday as the workplace (4-6 weeks), does away with prolonged undergraduate holiday breaks, which often act as a hindrance by breaking students’ learning momentum. Rates of both retention and attainment are higher among students enrolled on our accelerated degree courses, largely because the level of immersion required helps sustain students’ motivation and drive.

Universities will have to consider how two-year degrees fit with their overall strategy and mission. At GSM London, for instance, we know that accelerated degrees tie in with our widening participation ethos and that they address the needs of an important segment of our prospective learners.

Once this has been established, there are a whole host of factors that need to be accounted for, and institutional processes that need adapting. These range from the administration of student records and the frequency of exams, through to the need for institutions and examination boards to stay open for 48 weeks a year and the various staffing related issues that come with it.

A good way to begin would likely be to focus on small and selected areas. It’s a significant adaptation for traditional universities to make, and as such, they should limit the risk by restricting their intake of students on accelerated courses in a pilot phase. It might be best to consider programmes that have a history of attracting those looking to change career.

Universities also need to put in place the appropriate communications to prospective applicants, to highlight the advantages and disadvantages of fast-track degrees, and screen students to establish their ability to benefit. This would involve assessing their academic record, their ability to multitask, levels of maturity and motivation, career aspirations, as well as personal characteristics such as persistence and resilience.

These are not always easy to ascertain and are unlikely to be achieved simply through paper applications. Good practice might include undertaking interviews and assessing for academic efficacy. This face-to-face encounter also provides an opportunity to counsel students and explain the realities and demands of the study mode. Once enrolled, students’ progress would need to be closely monitored, with a mechanism in place to switch those unable to keep up with the demands of an accelerated study mode.

The accelerated degree is essentially a value proposition: it means that students are not going to incur the same level of fees they would under a three-year course, and it would allow them to earn a year’s extra income through their early re-entry into the workforce. Ultimately, it provides students with an additional level of choice. Accelerated degrees are not for everyone, but they offer a strong option to those who know where they need to get to, but have less time to get there.

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