Thursday, 6 October 2011

Who needs a four-year degree?

As expected, moves to a regime of higher fees for undergraduate students - for all students in England, for non-EU and non-Scottish UK students in Scotland - are already calling into question the merits of the traditional Scottish four-year degree. This is not surprising as, although no UK student studying at a Scottish university will pay fees up front, students will be increasingly conscious of their growing indebtedness, debt that will have to be repaid over their future working lives, on an income-contingent basis. Of course, students who graduate and then take low-paying jobs will not have to repay anything, and for those who find well paying jobs the burden of repayment should not feel that bad. Nevertheless, it's understandable that students and/or their families should think hard about where to study, what to study and how long a course to go for, given the new funding arrangements.

Traditionally, Scotland's four-year undergraduate degree has fallen into two parts, namely a three year ordinary or general degree (usually a BA), and the fourth year that resulted in the corresponding honours degree (usually an MA). When I first came up here to teach in Scottish universities back in the early 1970s, around half the students completed the ordinary degree and graduated at that stage, not least because for many professions that was sufficient for the job market. Entry to the honours year usually depended on performance in at least the first two years of study, and it was not enough just to pass the relevant courses, good passes were required. Commonly, students had to be achieving results of at least a lower second class honours standard before we let them advance to the honours year.

Over time, this quite strict and competitive system gradually broke down.

In part this happened as a result of factors external to the university, specifically changes in the job market. It seemed that more and more jobs expected graduates to have an honours degree (possibly because that was always the norm in England), so instead of choosing to leave us with a perfectly good ordinary degree, more and more students pressed for admission to honours. As a side effect of this, the status of the ordinary degree gradually declined, relative to the honours degree. There were also factors internal to the university, such as the modularisation of courses; each module was then assessed separately (by a mix of examination and coursework), instead of students facing a single set of exams at the end of each academic year. Gradually, it came to be thought that we couldn't stop students from proceeding to honours if they were passing all their modules. It was considered unfair to deny students the chance of an honours degree. And before long, practically everyone took their studies that far.

So how might the Scottish system evolve as increasing numbers of students have to pay fees? One way forward is to be more flexible about allowing entry to second year. For the first year of a Scottish degree was often quite broadly based, with a strong subject specialism only coming in year 2. Originally, the first year was designed for students with a range of Scottish Highers, but now more students stay on to do Advanced Highers, and the English students have A-levels. These qualifications often overlap with first year degree work, so second year entry is not so unreasonable. Indeed it has always been an option for exceptionally well qualified students, but I think it will be allowed more widely before long. The financial pressures certainly push in that direction.

Some universities might soon find that their first years become quite small, with more and more students entering at the second year stage. In time, one can easily envisage the existing first year simply being abandoned in many degree programmes; everyone would then start at the current second year (so it would be the new first year). Of course, this has resource implications for institutions, as universities wanting to keep up their total undergraduate numbers would need to recruit more students for each year of three-year degrees than they currently do for four-year degrees.Will there be enough students to go round, and how will such changes affect the competition between institutions? We don't know yet, but one can imagine difficult times ahead for some.

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