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Is the government missing the real 'levelling up' value of HE?

The Westminster government should wake up to the full potential of higher education to help it meet its ‘levelling up’ goals, argues Professor Martin Jones, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire University.

After a week of 'people power' it is time to listen to students

Jonathan Baldwin, managing director of higher education at Jisc, reflects on a week that’s felt the force of people power – and says it’s time for university leaders to respond to students’ calls for change.

Eventful week sees HE buffeted by spelling and campus re-opening rows

Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE, reviews another week in which higher education found itself in the spotlight, even when a royal funeral dominated the headlines.

Graduate earnings and HE admissions data mark another Groundhog Week in HE

Charlie Ball, Head of Higher Education Intelligence for Prospects at Jisc, reviews a week of higher education news which felt much like every other since lockdown, as new research on graduate earnings and university admissions was published.

Universities and students grapple with Covid and Brexit-related issues

Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Students Employers, reviews a week of HE news in which student accommodation, fee refunds, graduate jobs, and research funding surfaced as key issues.

Pandemic highlights gender inequality in HE

Reviewing a week in which issues affecting women’s lives were in the spotlight, Sandra Booth, Director of Policy and External Relations at the Council for Higher Education Art and Design (CHEAD), sees hopeful signs of moves to address gender equality in higher education.

HEi-think: Why universities should support two year degrees

From this September, students will be able to opt to study an accelerated two year degree, as opposed to a traditional three year course. Professor Malcolm Todd, Provost (Academic) at the University of Derby, discusses why universities should consider the change in legislation and look to offer accelerated degrees.

 

Legislation has been passed in the House of Lords to allow universities in England to support the expansion of two-year degrees and other accelerated courses.

But while there has been both excitement and criticism for the news through a series of headlines, ‘fast-track’ programmes are not, in themselves, new. 

Many universities have been providing two-year degrees for decades, and the policy has received cross-party support from as far back as the 1960s.

Now it has been agreed that universities can charge £11,000 per year for a two-year degree, starting from this September. Although this means the new shorter degrees will cost more per year, students who opt for a two-year degree will save at least £5,500 in total tuition fees compared to a standard three-year programme.

Aside from the positive economic benefits for students, accelerated degrees could also help address the needs of the UK’s changing labour market.

Britain’s productivity has remained static since 2008, and currently stands 16.3 per cent lower than that of the rest of the G7 nations . In addition, the UK is currently experiencing a critical skills shortage.

According to a report by The Open University , 91 per cent of organisations in the UK struggle to find workers with the right skills – costing an extra £6.33 billion a year in recruitment fees, inflated salaries, temporary staff and training for workers hired at a lower level than intended.

Accelerated degrees mean that students will be entering the labour market a year earlier, benefiting employers who will be able to recruit high-skilled graduates to their workplaces sooner.

The UK has a flexible labour market and, as universities are at the cutting-edge of research and innovation, higher education providers are imperative in helping to close the skills gap.

If Britain is to successfully support the Prime Minister’s Industrial Strategy to “shape a stronger and fairer economy for decades to come” , then the UK needs a highly-skilled, talented workforce, and accelerated degrees could help this ambition. 

However, it is crucial that learners undertaking two-year degrees are provided with high-quality teaching, and academic and pastoral support.

Two-year degrees will condense three-year degrees with 30 weeks’ teaching, into two years with 45 weeks’ of teaching, sparking concerns among people in the sector, including the Shadow Minister for higher education Gordon Marsden, who has said the government has “pressed ahead with the increase despite the very serious questions about…guaranteeing the quality of university education”.

A more intense degree programme will mean the workload for students will increase, however it has to be recognised that some students want a faster pace of learning. 

To ensure they are future-fit, universities will need to become more flexible in the way they deliver education. Many students are mature learners, single parents, or those who work alongside studying, and universities have to continue to cater for the needs of all their learners. 

Universities Minister Chris Skidmore has said the two-year programmes will “break the one size fits all mould,” which I certainly agree with.

Higher education needs to be accessible and universities need to be opening doors to everyone. At the University of Derby, we firmly believe in the transformational nature of education and, as a champions of social mobility, strive to inspire and create opportunities for all across our region and beyond, regardless of age, background or location.

Universities no longer solely offer three-year degrees, and simply cannot remain sustainable by doing so. Degree apprenticeships, distance learning, part-time courses, and foundation year programmes are just some examples of alternative modes of study where we see students thrive and succeed. Our ability to offer the broadest range of options means that at every stage of someone’s life or career, there are the tools, resources and opportunities on offer from which they can benefit.

Underpinning all of this, of course, is a need for high quality academic standards. It is important that the UK’s world-class reputation for higher education is not damaged by poor quality teaching and poor student experience on two-year programmes, something which has been echoed by The Universities and College Union.

Universities, as a result, need to be selective about which subjects they offer as two-year programmes, and those they do need to be carefully monitored and assessed.

Two-year degrees won’t be for everyone or all subjects and institutions, as stated by Chris Skidmore and, in fact, many students may not want to take them up as they relish the idea of three years of studying – giving them greater opportunity to embrace their academic study and university life. Therefore, it should be recognised that a three-year degree remains equally as valuable.

For those universities offering two-year degrees or considering it, the courses need to be properly marketed and communicated to students, so they are aware of what they entail and how they will be delivered, monitored and evaluated. The same should go to stakeholders – teachers, parents, and businesses who go on to employ people with a two-year degree, so they are aware that these degrees hold the same value.

At the University of Derby, our flexible approach to teaching, balanced with the needs of our learners means we have been able to respond to demand and provide paths to higher education that suit many learners. Two-year degrees are programmes we are exploring further.

According to Universities UK, demand has previously been limited for two-year courses. Now, I hope universities take advantage of the new policy and see whether they can support accelerated learning.

When universities are under scrutiny for offering ‘value for money’ and, with the Augar Review on the horizon, flexible learning is undoubtedly something the sector should be supporting. 

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