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HEi-think: Why accelerated degrees are unlikely to be “transformative"

Mike Ratcliffe, Oxford-based university administrator and Director of More Means Better, casts a critical eye over the government’s plans to expand accelerated degrees.

 

“If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere best it were done quickly.”

For a policy change that’s about doing things quickly, the progress of accelerated degrees seems to be extraordinarily slow.

The notion that you could look at the pattern of the three year degree and wonder whether you can do it faster is hardly new. Indeed, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has supported pilots in both 1995-1996 and 2005-2009. The Department for Education ran a call for evidence in May 2016, published a review of evidence in March 2017 and is now running a consultation with a view to new arrangements starting in 2019/20. If you include Buckingham, who’ve been doing this for 40 years, none of this is new.

Will acceleration work?

With credit-based courses, the notion that you can accelerate your progress by taking more modules is well-established and perfectly easy to structure. The summer is an obvious candidate and it’s not hard to put together an additional semester of 60 credits either through standard taught modules or more innovative learning experiences. Universities with January starts might use that summer to accelerate those students so they can join the September starting students. This is all perfectly possible. 

But, you quickly hit some logistical problems, which the HEFCE pilots have highlighted. It’s hard to run a mixed cohort of 2 year course and 3 year course students in the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications - the students are quickly at different levels. While you can share some modules, you’re quickly separating groups. That means you need a self-sufficient accelerated course cohort. The Government assumes that many universities can run this as a marginal cost exercise, but a separate cohort confounds that. The Government has arbitrarily decided that although a student will take 100 per cent of the course content, they’ll only make 87 per cent of the tuition fee available within that two year period. 

Students hit logistical problems too. The Government assumes that extending the maintenance loan through the long course mechanism is another marginal cost. They note that a student would only need £1,900 more maintenance loan in an academic year to step up from taking 120 credits to 180. Given that accommodation is the major component of expense, then that stacks up if the student has a contract for 52 weeks, but not if they have term-time accommodation. 

The politics of acceleration 

The consultation document makes clear that the government is only looking at accelerating standard full-time courses. Interestingly, the 1995 pilot looked at the benefits of extended years for part-time students - out of scope in this exercise. Again, notions of accommodating January starts or flexible modes all suffer because of the way that fees are regulated. Since the Dearing Report in 1997 tuition fees have been hard-wired into legislation. This plan for accelerated degrees includes the baffling decision to arbitrarily cut the amount of tuition that can be charged for 360 credits from a cap of £27,750 to £22,200. The consultation document says: 

Our rationale for setting the fee for an accelerated degree at this level is that it strikes the right balance between the interests of the student and the provider, generating both savings for students and incentives for providers.  (DfE 2017 p17)

As is the mode at present, this is spoken of as an incentive - for the student, who’ll find the degree is a bit cheaper, and the provider who’ll get a bit more money. Of course, the whole of the evidence of the ‘market’ for fees since the £9,000 cap was first brought in is that students don’t opt for cheaper courses (otherwise all the universities who bravely tried to set a fee below the £9,000 cap would have been flooded with applicants - but they weren’t). 

This is about the politics.  Having got the rise to £9,250 through parliament by sleight of hand just before the election, the Government knows that the regulation that increases the cap to £11,100 is going to be contested. The ‘right balance’ that’ll be struck here is whether this can be got through the Commons. The headline figure offered to the press is part of this - students might be £25,000 ‘better off’ - the bulk of which comes from £19,000 of earnings from an extra year of work.

The Impact of Acceleration

The impact assessment that accompanies the consultation is well worth a look. At present there are some 2,500 students taking accelerated degrees (there are 1.7million undergraduate students). We are offered both ‘cautious’ and ‘transformative’ scenarios where they carefully map notions of either entirely new students (those who wouldn’t otherwise enter HE), and switching students (those who would have done three year degrees).  The cautious model sees 22,000 students on 2 year courses by 2028. The transformative model forecasts an ambitious 67,000 students. Given that accelerated degrees have been around for years, either of these models seems implausible. The impact assessment is clear that it will be alternative providers who provide the bulk of the students, but Buckingham has had 40 years and only grown to 1,200 undergraduate students.

If this is a ‘transformational’ model, and student numbers in this mode are 25 times larger in 10 years time, it will still represent a tiny proportion of the population. So why all the attention? The Government chooses stories to release at the weekend very carefully - take a look at the announcements on .Gov.uk. Apart from foreign affairs, there’s normally only one announcement on either Saturday or Sunday, eye-catching but not controversial and forward-looking. 

Accelerated degrees will be a small niche for some students in some disciplines - as the evaluations of the HEFCE pilots told us. However, they also fit a government narrative of ‘value for money’, a thread that we should expect to dominate 2018.    

  

 

 

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