If you “Google” two-year degrees in the UK you will see a cyclic pattern when the idea keeps being floated in the UK. The idea is driven by the cost of the degree and the fact Universities “sit” idle over the summer. The latter being a wide spread perception across the country, especially amongst those who have never attended University. Let me just flag some issues for consideration from a STEM perspective:
1. Education maturity: embedding knowledge is much about reflection than cramming facts. In fact, the developing of ideas and application of ideas come with time. Could this happen over two years? Absolutely, but this would disadvantage the weaker student, who would have no time to work on their knowledge holes and have removed the opportunities to reinforce the learning. The summer will no longer be there for that additional work and the preparation for resits. Knowledge in science builds on knowledge, those students who are not engaged in their first year very rarely recover. With 60% of students at Bath taking part in a year-long placement the model doesn’t fit. The maturity of the students coming back from their placement into their studies only strengthens the argument around the need to reflect and apply the knowledge. It is clear the development of that level of maturity is an important (often unmeasurable) aspect of a degree programme.
2. Research activity: it is true the most productive research time is often over the summer. Access to equipment is free of undergraduate use. Time free from tutorial, assessment as well as delivery allows new research ideas to be developed. Of course those issues could be addressed but at what cost? Further investment in parallel infrastructure dedicated to teaching only and the employment of teaching fellows. Both approaches are a step away from the research-led teaching the leading Universities aspire to. Is that a concern? It is access to the research stars and embedding learning in a research environment that leads to the critical thinking skills employers are looking for. Without those skills you’re imparting facts without the skill to interpret those facts. Not a way to upskill the UK workforce.
3. Summer vacation: allows the downtime to re-develop the curriculum and further enhance undergraduate laboratories. It is also a period that is/can be used to generate income to allow further investment in that infrastructure. It is certainly true the current fee structure doesn’t cover the true costs of a STEM degree. Removing this time free from teaching can only impinge on the teaching quality and equally important student experience - both important drivers for the Government.
4. Integrated masters: already the very brightest students who need to be stretched sign up to an integrated master programme over four years. A medical degree is already five years. It is clear for the brightest student a two-year degree is not an option they are considering. Whilst the brightest could cope with a two-year degree the development of the depth and application of their degree would be severely curtailed. The very best students would still benefit, but the levels of self-learning and critical thinking, which future employers are looking for, would still be in an embryonic form. We would be short changing the student and not maximising Government investment.
A two-year degree is great from a perspective of an accountant in Whitehall and those wishing to tick the box of the percentage having a University education. But as always the old adage “you get what you pay for” rings true. The question that should be asked is “are we delivering what UK employers want from STEM graduates?” With a two-year degree - probably not.