Government proposes lower-cost fast-track degrees

The United Kingdom universities minister, Sam Gyimah, has announced a proposal to allow universities to charge higher per annum fees for two-year accelerated degree courses, to encourage more higher education institutions to offer them and drive up student choice.

The proposal, which would need to be passed by parliament, would allow universities to raise annual fees to £11,150 (US$14,300) for the fast-track degrees, taking the cost over two years to £22,300. A three-year degree currently costs £27,750.

This means students who opt for a two-year degree will save 20% (£5,450) or more in total tuition costs compared to a standard three-year course.

Gyimah hopes the introduction of two-year accelerated degree programmes will encourage new providers into the market and offer more flexibility to students, particularly mature students.

He said: “Innovative solutions and ground-breaking opportunities remain the driving force behind our higher education system.

“Accelerated degrees not only make it possible for the next generation of students to access higher education and the undeniable financial, academic and personal benefits it has to offer, but drives the sector to offer dynamic choices that serve students’ needs.”

He said providers will be able to tap into a new market of students, particularly mature students who were previously locked out of higher education.

“This provision creates a new arena of competition that delivers for students, taxpayers and employers.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said the accelerated degrees offer students from all backgrounds the possibility of studying over a shorter period of time, at a lower overall cost compared with a standard three-year course.

“For many, they are likely to be an attractive option.”

‘Boost for businesses’

The government said the move will not just enable students on all such courses to graduate one year faster compared to standard degrees, but that it would prove a “welcome boost for businesses which will be able to access talented graduates a year earlier”.

This particularly applies to subjects such as accountancy, financial management and law where accrediting bodies are developing accelerated courses for rapid graduate employment.

Accelerated degrees are expected to be made available for the vast majority of other courses too, according to the government announcement.

Verity Davidge, head of education and skills policy at EEF, the Manufacturers’ Organisation, said: “For manufacturers facing acute skills shortages, accelerated degrees widen the graduate talent pool, they are faster and also ensure sought-after STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] graduates are able to enter the labour market more quickly.

“These degrees will also be attractive to learners, who will find themselves with less student debt – resulting in a much-needed boost in supply to industry.”

The proposal to roll out the shorter courses follows a consultation with sector stakeholders, and may be a more straightforward option for new providers than for traditional universities, for whom it could involve a change in working practices for teaching staff, requiring them to provide teaching all year round.

Teaching condensed into 30 weeks

Accelerated degrees will be subject to the same quality assurance measures as standard degrees and will provide the same level of qualification. For example, a two-year accelerated degree will condense three-year degrees with 45 weeks teaching into two years with 30 weeks teaching.

Although the proposals allow institutions to charge up to 20% more per year for accelerated degrees – in recognition of the increased teaching time required – the overall tuition fee cost of the two-year accelerated degree to the student is 20% less than the same degree over three years.

Dandridge said: “We look forward to seeing the impact of the new fee limit on student choice and diversity of provision across the country, and we will be working with students, universities and colleges, the government and other partners to support the wider delivery of these degrees.”

The government says the 20% increase in the fee per annum will allow providers to support higher in-year costs for accelerated provision, such as tuition weeks over the summer and administrative staff pay and capital overheads.

For the taxpayer, it means significantly lower tuition loan outlay, higher rates of repayment and therefore a lower cost to the public purse of higher education. A higher proportion of students on accelerated degrees will also repay their loans in full, the government argues.

*According to The Sunday Times, Birkbeck, University of London, is planning to cut its tuition fees by 50%, a move that could spark a price war between universities, to reduce the financial burden on students.