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Are double or multiple degrees leading to ‘discount degrees’?

The number and types of international double and multiple degree programmes have skyrocketed in the last five years. This clearly demonstrates their role in the current landscape of international higher education and their popularity with students and institutions alike.

A few words about what a double or multiple degree programme actually means and involves is important as there are multiple interpretations and hence mass confusion about the meaning of the term.

An international double degree (or multiple degree) programme involves two or more institutions from different countries collaborating to design and deliver an academic programme. Normally a qualification from each of the collaborating institutions is provided.

They differ from joint degree programmes or co-tutelle arrangements. A joint degree programme offers one qualification jointly issued by two or more collaborating institutions while a co-tutelle arrangement involves partner universities working together on the development and delivery of a programme, but only one degree is offered by the institution of registration.

This discussion recognises the contribution of all three approaches, but focuses on the issues related to double or multiple degree programmes only.

As an internationalisation strategy, double/multiple degree programmes address the heartland of academia – the teaching and learning process and the production of new knowledge between and among countries.

These programmes are built on the principle of international academic collaboration and can bring important benefits to students, professors, institutions, and national and regional education systems. The interest in double degrees is exploding, but so is concern about those programmes that double-count the same credits for two or more degrees.

A good thing?

A broad range of reactions to double degree programmes exists due to the diversity of programme models; the involvement of new – bona fide and rogue – providers; the uncertainty related to quality assurance and recognition of qualifications; and finally, the ethics involved in deciding the required academic workload and-or acquired new competencies for granting of double/multiple degrees.

For many academics and policy-makers, double degree programmes are welcomed as a natural extension of exchange and mobility programmes.

For others, double/multiple degree programmes are perceived as a troublesome development leading to double counting of academic work, thus jeopardising the integrity of a university qualification, and moving towards the thin edge of academic fraud.

Students are attracted to double degree programmes for a variety of reasons.

The opportunity to be part of a programme that offers two or more degrees from universities located in different countries is seen to enhance their employability prospects and career path. Some students believe that a collaborative programme is of higher quality because the expertise of two or more universities has shaped the academic programme.

Other students are not so interested in enhanced quality, but are attracted to the opportunity to obtain two degrees ‘for the price of one’.

Students argue that the duration is shorter for a double degree programme, the workload is definitely less than for two single degrees, and there is less of a financial burden. This argument is not valid for all programmes of this type, but there is an element of truth in these claims.

Even the traditional twinning arrangements, where an academic programme and qualification from the parent/home institution is being offered in a different country through cooperation with a local host higher education institution, are now morphing into double degree programmes – one from the home institution and another from the host institution even though the credits for one academic programme are completed.

Not all double degree programmes involve student mobility as it is more economical to move professors than students and virtual classrooms are becoming more popular.

Finally, the status factor cannot be ignored. There is a certain sense of elitism attached to having academic credentials from universities in different countries, even if the student never studied abroad.

Institutional boon?

For institutions, academic benefits in terms of curriculum innovation, exchanges of professors and researchers and access to expertise and networks of the partner university make these programmes especially attractive.

Another important rationale is to increase an institution’s reputation and ranking as an international university. This is accomplished by deliberately collaborating with partners of equal or greater status.

Interestingly, some institutions prefer double degree programmes with higher ranked partners in order to avoid domestic accreditation procedures. For others, counting students from double degree programme cohorts can increase their graduation numbers and throughput rates.

While the benefits of double degree programmes are many and diverse, so are the challenges.

Different regulatory systems, academic calendars, quality assurance and accreditation schemes, credit systems, tuition and scholarship programmes, teaching approaches, entrance and examination requirements, language of instruction and thesis or dissertation supervision are a few of the issues that collaborating institutions have to address.

An analysis of double/multiple degree programmes from around the world shows that there is no one model. Nor, should there be one standard model as local conditions vary enormously.

However, important new questions are being raised as the number and types of double/multiple programmes increase.

For example – which is the best route for accreditation of double/multiple degree programmes – national, binational, regional or international accreditation?

Can one thesis/dissertation fulfil the requirements of two research-based graduate programmes? Are international collaborative programmes encouraging the overuse of English and the standardisation of curriculum?

Will status-building and credentialism motives eventually jeopardise the quality and academic objectives of these international collaborative degree programmes? Are these programmes sustainable without additional internal or external supplementary funding?


A challenge facing the higher education community around the world is to develop a common understanding of what double or multiple programmes actually mean, the academic requirements and qualifications offered, and how they differ from joint degree programmes.

Joint degree programmes are very attractive alternatives, but face legal and bureaucratic barriers as it is impossible in many countries to offer a joint qualification with another institution.

Most importantly, a rigorous debate on the vexing questions of accreditation, recognition and ‘legitimacy’ of the qualifications needs to take place to ensure that international double or multiple degree programmes are respected and recognised by students, institutions and employers around the world and do not become known for offering ‘discount degrees’.

* Jane Knight is adjunct professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada.
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