In this blog post, I explain my reasoning as to why 2 year degrees will be a disaster for students and staff in research-intensive subjects, and why this would be very damaging for the higher education and research sectors in the UK.
In short, it is my opinion that 2-year degrees will:
- Damage the student experience and student job prospects
- Erode the student experience
- Damage social mobility
- Lower teaching standards
- Encourage universities to exploit younger research and teaching staff
- Encourage researchers to move away from English universities
- Not save students as much money as the headline figures suggest
What the government is proposing
This week (11th December 2017), the British government have proposed introducing a two-year degree system in England [link to BBC news article]. In brief, the government are proposing that students could fit three-years of teaching into two-years by “students forsaking their three-month summer holidays”.
Why this seems superficially attractive to students:
- Students currently pay £9,000-£9250 per year in tuition fees, totalling £27,000- 27,750.
- Under the two-year degree, they would pay £11,000 per year in fees, totalling £22,000 -> equivalent to a saving of £5000-£5750 on student loan repayments.
- One year less living costs to pay back via student loans.
- Earlier entry into the job market.
At a glance, this attractive because students would save a substantial amount of money. This will be particularly attractive to students from lower-income backgrounds, where money and financial security are major concerns. However, if two-year degrees are implemented, then there will be major negative repercussion for both students and staff, and it all stems from that lack of a summer break.
The negative implications for students
The big implication is that with the lack of a “summer break”, students won’t be able to undertake paid summer internships in research laboratories or with companies. These are often not formal parts of degree courses, but they are hugely influential in determining the future ambitions and prospects of student that undertake them. Students often find that working in a lab over the summer inspires them to undertake a PhD. Others find that a summer internship with a company really opens doors for them post-graduation. The experience and letters of recommendation they get as a result of these summer placements are invaluable, and they can make-or-break a career. Students on two-year degrees won’t even get a chance to undertake these opportunities.
Far from being equivalent to their three-year counterparts, two-year students will be at an immediate and significant disadvantage in both the job market and in applying for research positions (e.g. to pursue a PhD). And why? Because they, very reasonably, wanted to save some money in the face of an extremely expensive and rapidly commercialised higher education system. The lack of placement opportunities will discourage students from low-income backgrounds from participating in research and industry, and thus further entrench inequality. Such a two-tier degree system is not acceptable, and will be a disaster for social mobility in the UK.
As for the savings on tuition fees and living costs…. that could be much less of a saving for students than the headline figures would suggest. Recent figures from London Economics show due to high tuition fees and a 6.1% interest rate on student loans; only graduates of the most prosperous professions, (i.e. medical, legal, engineering, and finance) will pay off their student loan before the 30-year loan write-off deadline (see Figures at the end of this blog).
With their experience potentially less-valued by employers, two-year students are likely to find it significantly harder to get well-paying jobs compared to their three-year counterparts. Thus, they will likely pay less into student loan repayments. As such, it is very unclear as to what the real-terms benefit of the £5000 discount on tuition fees and one-year less living costs would be. In likelihood, it’ll be much less of a discount than the government says.
As an extra kick-in-the-teeth, students will have less time to participate in student societies. This is particularly important for the majority students – who in their late teens and early 20s gain much from their time at university outside the lecture theatre. The two-year degree time frame will significantly damage the student experience.
If the implications for students aren’t bad enough, teaching standards for all students, is likely to suffer as a result of the two-year degree system. This is explained in the next section.
The negative implications for university staff
University teaching and research still will also be negatively affected by this fundamental and drastic shake-up of the structure of Higher Education. The issue stems from the fact that when not lecturing, university academic staff are typically required to conduct world-class research. In 2014, the British government has brought in the “Research Excellence Framework (REF)” to assess if research is world leading. This affects researchers career prospects, and funding for universities. Currently, academic staff must juggle extensive teaching and examination duties along with producing world-leading research. The teaching-free summer months are vital for research in the UK.
Due to these existing time-pressures, introducing summer teaching requirements will:
- Give staff less time to conduct world-class research.
- Encourage staff to spend less time to teaching each course – consequently reducing teaching standards across the board.
- Encourage staff to “jump ship” and move away from institutions in England (which many are already considering due to Brexit).
But it gets worse for staff. With increased teaching requirements, universities will be incentivised to hire less-qualified, junior staff to fill the teaching gap. This may seem like a good thing, but universities right now have a terrible habit of hiring junior staff on low-paid, insecure, exploitative, toxic contracts. This is so prevalent in the sector, that it is one of the main focuses of the University and College Union. [https://www.ucu.org.uk/stampout] To put it bluntly, any teaching jobs created are likely to be crap ones.
I have presented arguments why two-year degrees will be very bad for research-intensive subjects. It would be disingenuous for me not to concede that two-year degrees could be somewhat beneficial in certain circumstances, e.g. for mature students, or for in non-research-intensive subjects and universities. However, my career is in science and research, so I have focused on the issues related to science and research.
Whilst the headline figures from two-year degrees may seem superficially attractive for students, such a major shake-up of the higher-education system will have deeply negative consequences for students, university staff, and the UK’s research sector.
Students will likely see a decline in teaching standards, and find that two-year degrees will be less valued than three-year degrees.
University staff will face a crippling demand on their time, lowering the quality of teaching and research, and encouraging staff to “jump ship” to other countries. Any new jobs teaching created will likely exploit young staff on insecure contracts.
These factors will also damage the UK’s research sector by reducing opportunities for English students; something we can ill-afford at time where knowledge is the UK’s main export and when the UK is suffering a Brexit brain-drain.
In short, the disadvantages of two-year degrees vastly outweigh the potential benefits.
Student loan repayment vs. time for men and women under the current student loan and tuition fee system
Source: London Economics/University College Union [link]
Cheeky extra comment:
P.S. Let’s not forget that Scottish students save £27,000 on tuition fee repayments compared to their English counterparts, yet get four years of university experience.