Two Year Degrees: The Controversy

News today of plans to allow universities to include two-year degree programmes (at a higher cost to the student, of up to £13,500) have been greeted with concern. Perhaps rightly so. But I wanted to add my two pennies’ worth to the discussion, and as it might be reductive (or certainly challenging), to try and squeeze it into Twitter’s 140-character limit, I’ve opted for a slightly longer response over here.

It seems to me that the concerns fall largely into two camps: student-orientated and academic-orientated although, as we might expect, there is plenty of overlap. Concerns such as the added-financial cost, the impact on the values of degrees and disciplines, the impact on teaching and learning, and the need for a summer vacation are all mutual concerns shared in both camps, but the impacts are, of course, different. As such, once I’ve shared my experience – and why I have mixed, though mostly positive views, on the concept – I’ve broken the post into two sections. The first considers the implications for students, and then the second turns to the impact on academics and the ramifications for universities.

But first, my story. Why bother adding my view to the mix. Well, for many of the same reasons that others have, for starters, but also because I have done a two-year degree, at one of the few institutions that currently offers the programme – The University of Buckingham.

On the surface the tuition was far higher than my peers at other institutions were paying (these were the days before the original tuition fee hike), but once you factored in losing a years living cost it worked out to be significantly cheaper. This is aside from the academic benefits such as smaller class sizes (my biggest lecture class was 50, and the average on my course was more like 30), tutorials of no more than six and a promise to take students at a variety of academic levels (looking at the student and not just the A-Level, or in my case, IB results), not just the best, but to raise all students to high degree levels. It meant a programme that, for me, was normally four years would last and cost only just over two years. I missed out on a year-abroad, but I also missed the cost of one.

When I began my degree, in English Literature with French, I hoped to go into translation work, or teaching. As I entered my final year, and when I decided to take a voluntary (yes, really) dissertation in English literature, I was encouraged to consider the possibility of further study. In fact, as it turned out I completed a BA and MA in the space of three years. Some people go into the 3-year BA+MA from the get-go but mine wasn’t planned.

Many of my friends were international students and for them, particularly those from the states, Buckingham was a significantly cheaper option. But they’re far better at talking about that, so I’ll let them explain. For others they were juggling families, jobs they’d managed to get two years leave from to complete a degree, and others who’d come back to study after many years in other professions. It was a lovely diverse mix. While I was there 60% of students were international, we had many mature students, and people from all walks of life. It was part of what made studying at Buckingham such a brilliant experience.

I’ll draw on my experience a bit as I think about the impact of rolling out a similar scheme across the country, but there’s a whistle-stop tour of my degree experience as an undergraduate at Buckingham.

Student’s perspective

As a student money is precious and sadly often marked only by its absence. The student loans and institutional scholarships seek to help with tuition and living costs, but being a student is an expensive business. With the sanctioning of increased fee of up to £13,000, if the loan system is not adapted to match this, then for many the option of two-year degree will be far beyond their budget. This is particularly sad given that it is those for whom the cost of a degree is too high, and the idea of taking time away for three years from paid work is unthinkable, who might benefit most from a two-year programme.

Linked to cost is the concern over losing the summer vacation. For a large proportion of students this summer vacation functions not for holidays but rather for part-time holiday work in order to fund next academic year’s degree and living costs. Those 4+ months of time away from university allow uninterrupted time to earn, unlike the part-time jobs undertaken in term-time which have to fit around busy lecture and assignment schedules. This is certainly true, and an issue that may well deter students from the two-year programmes. I took up a part-time job in the weekends and evenings during term-time, and then worked in the vacation periods between terms (we did still have 12 weeks off from university a year).

Whether you are on a two or three year programme, it means juggling. I was lucky that my term-time job was at one of the university libraries and allowed me time to study in the less busy periods, and my vacation job (cleaning at a Cambridge college) did mean I could listen to audio versions (thanks to the free librivox service) of texts we would be studying the following term. Worked well with Shakespeare, less well with the particular recording I got of Paradise Lost, but I supplemented this of course with reading the texts on my commute into work. One memorable occasion saw me cleaning a student kitchen, while listening to one of Donne’s sermons on death, only to be stopped by a student to ask if I knew what was number one in the charts that week, ‘since I can hear the thumping of music from your headphones.’ A new reading of Donne perhaps.

The summer vacation also, I gather from friends who had it, poses another difficulty: forgetting. Forgetting study routines, skills, and content. Certainly my friends found this, with breaks spanning from May-September, it was easy to forget the mathematical proof taught the previous Autumn, even for the most diligent of students. Sure it allows for longer set texts like Ulysses to be prescribed in advance of the next academic year, but breaking for such a long time can see students struggling to adjust again each year, and this struggle may not just be academic. With an average of only two or three weeks off each break, we simply didn’t have time for this to happen on my programme. The longest break, over Christmas, at about six weeks gave us a mini-equivalent of the summer vacation, but with just about enough time to catch up with family, friends, cram in some work, and read up for the next term, it was time to go back again. This model wouldn’t suit everyone but I enjoyed it. It’s a challenge, but it’s also much more like the working world in terms of holiday length. I remember at my interview being advised that holidays should be taken as holidays and not filled up with extra academic work because the term-time schedule was so intensive. I stuck to that, mostly..

The value of a degree might become perfunctory – a means to an end with a particular career in mind, as opposed to the study of a discipline (or disciplines) in and of itself. Well possibly, since the current system is already used like that, but two-year programmes need not necessarily be seen in this light. My story tells the reverse. I went into the programme with particular aspirations in mind, but you change a great deal over the course of a degree, and love for the subject spurred me on to do an MA and then a PhD. Love for literature is why I want to become a lecturer and enter academia, post-PhD, so I can share that subject love – love for the study of it in and of itself – with students embarking on their undergraduate journey.

Leading me neatly into a view from the academics side..

Academic angle

It saddens me that there are suggestions that a two-year degree is somehow inferior, that the scholars it produces have somehow had a lesser, stunted experience. It is different. Not inferior. And in fact I had more weeks of teaching over my two year programme than several friends on three year programmes. The model Buckingham uses is a four-term system i.e. the additional teaching found in third year runs for two summer terms over the two-year programme, so the content is still there. I admit it perhaps gives you less time to ponder the texts, but I don’t recall feeling this as I studied. Further reading during and post-degree meant I continued to think about texts long after we had been assessed. I certainly don’t feel my academic experience was lesser, in fact studying so many texts alongside each other, gives chance for organic links and connections to develop between texts. I remember this in particular in my final term when modernism and renaissance literature modules ran alongside each other and I found renaissance literature helped me understand modernism, while my friend found the reverse, but we both found the connections we were forming between the periods and texts fascinating. We still talk about it.

For academics, like students, the summer vacation is not a holiday. It’s time set aside for research and everything else that there is no time for in term. It’s time needed to work on projects put on the back-burner while teaching takes priority. Archive work, conferences, and deep study: these are things that it’s tricky to find time for amongst the admin, teaching and meetings which characterise term-time. If nothing else it is these things which the REF assesses. Research is important. It informs the teaching, and furthers the discipline. Research and teaching are of course intimately connected but term leaves little precious research time. Two-year programmes then appear to present a big problem, when can research take place if there is no summer break? Buckingham’s solution to this, at least in the English and languages department was to alternate, so that each lecturer had at least one term sabbatical a year (i.e. 9 weeks at least). It worked because the university is small and so such arrangements are more easily made, I’m now at a larger institution for my doctoral studies and even though the English department there is relatively small (in terms of staff numbers), I suspect it would be very difficult to arrange this easily. But before implementing two-year degrees universities, will have to consider this – and not just because their REF score (and soon TEF score) may depend on it.

A big problem of course is the status of the discipline, and more widely the potential it has to degrade the status of degrees. Suggesting they are simply there to be got-through, or there to function as a passport to a particular career, as I discussed above. This has an impact on how we view the role of a lecturer, the purpose of university teaching, and indeed research. Universities ought to be places in which students develop and grow intellectually in their chosen field and enjoy that process of change through – in the case of English literature students at least – literary texts and criticism they study as they find their own voice, oral and written. The process is as important as the degree awarded at the end. Universities, at least for the humanities, are not, and should not be viewed merely as training colleges, churning out degree stamped students for a particular career. Buckingham, long established in two-year programmes, was able to encourage intellectual growth, academic excellence, and eventual degrees which recognised both. It was small too, and so you were known by all in the department. There was a sense that all (staff and students) prompted and played an important role in the development of every student. But this will be a real challenge for new programmes pioneered by existing universities.

As I wrap up, I am sure I will not have covered all the concerns which the subject of two-year degrees poses, indeed that would require a far longer post and by someone far more qualified than me. But I wanted to share my experience, and why I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to do a degree in two years at Buckingham. I acknowledge it is not the right model for all students, nor for all academics and institutions. That option is important. It isn’t a one-size fits all solution, and nor should it be implemented as such. It will certainly require adjustment for staff and students, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, I don’t think it is a model which ought to be forced upon students or academics, particularly if only the extra financial benefit, and not the extra work for staff and students, is considered by university boards. It will only exacerbate the already problematic marketization of higher education. Keeping track of all students and supporting those who fall behind is, as a fellow PhD student pointed out, tricky enough across three years, and two years leaves an even smaller window it is possible that the compromise might mean less students per cohort in order to make the programme work. Whether for or against two-year degree programmes, supporting staff and students needs to be at the forefront of our considerations. We need to consider the impact on students and staff, and supporting both academics as they teach and research, and undergraduates as the study, whether they embark together upon a two-, three-, or four-year degree programme.

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About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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One Response to Two Year Degrees: The Controversy

  1. Pingback: Two Year Degrees: The Controversy | The Shakespeare Standard

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