Government unveils plans for two-year bachelor degrees

The United Kingdom government has announced plans for two-year accelerated bachelor degrees that it claims could save students up to £25,000 (US$33,000) compared with taking the degree over three years in the normal way.

Accelerated degrees will offer the same qualifications and will be quality assured in the same way as a standard degree, but delivered over a shorter, usually two-year timespan, according to the proposals, which have been set out for consultation.

The plan would allow institutions to charge up to 20% more each year for accelerated degrees, but the overall tuition fee cost of the degree to the student would be 20% less than the same degree over three years.

This means that the total tuition fee cost would be £5,500 lower than for a standard three-year course. However, the government argues that, since students taking the accelerated course would finish a year early and the average first year salary after graduating is £19,000, there is a potential £25,000 benefit overall to the student.

This would be achievable by doing the same course in 45 weeks per year instead of 30.

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said the proposal had been made possible by the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act, which allows the government to change the “one-size-fits-all system” so that students have “much more choice over how they learn”.

He said: “For too long we have been stuck with a system that has increasingly focused on offering only one way of benefiting from higher education, via the classic three-year degree programme.

“For highly motivated students hungry for a faster pace of learning and a quicker route into or back into work, at lower overall cost, two-year degrees will be well worth considering.”

He is hoping this will be an attractive option to mature students, but also that many school leavers will see advantages in being able to get a degree and enter the world of work more quickly at lower cost.

The government claims the proposal would save money for the taxpayer through lower tuition loan outlay and higher rates of repayment and because a higher proportion of students would be repaying loans.

The government says providers already offering accelerated degrees report that students are more engaged, employers give more positive feedback and it is possible to attract a “wider pool of applications”, including mature students who often want to retrain and re-enter the workplace more quickly.

Professor Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said: “Accelerated degrees are an attractive option for mature students who have missed out on the chance to go to university as a young person.”

But Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said there was no concrete evidence that the shorter courses would benefit students and claimed the proposal was “another plan to raise tuition fees”.

The higher fee cap of £11,100 for the proposed accelerated courses – regular undergraduates currently pay up to £9,250 – has yet to be signed off by parliament and it is not known whether there is enough support for it.

That figure represents a row-back on an earlier suggestion that universities might be able to charge the equivalent of the tuition fees for a normal three-year degree for the accelerated version.

There are currently already some accelerated degree courses on offer, including in law, accountancy and English, but demand has been limited, according to Universities UK.

Some observers say there is a reluctance on behalf of institutions to offer them because they bring in less tuition fee income and create complications for staff contracts and other arrangements due to the longer term times.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “Making two-year degrees more attractive makes sense as the current rules aren’t great and more diversity is generally good in higher education – so long as quality is maintained.”

The government hopes its proposals will lead to many more accelerated courses being made available across a wide range of subjects.

But Hillman said while lower fees for two-year degrees might increase demand from older students, many school leavers are remarkably price insensitive and like the idea of staying at university for three or more years.

He also suggested that from the provider’s point of view, getting £11,100 to educate students for 40 weeks a year (£280 a week) rather than £9,250 for 30 weeks a year (£310 a week) is unlikely to make a significant difference.

“Overall, [the] announcement may not be a game changer,” he said.

The consultation is open until February and the new fee arrangements for accelerated degrees will be in place by September 2019.