Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Time to move on from three-year degrees

UK-centric post follows... This post is to discuss a situation that is becoming increasingly anomalous and unsustainable, namely the system in English universities in which the standard period of study time for an undergraduate degree is just three years. (Earlier I criticised a similar problem in the context of PhD degrees.) Here is the historical explanation for it:

  • English schools encouraged early specialisation, traditionally three "A levels" during the last two years of study (so you would focus for example, on Maths, Physics and Chemistry)

  • Students at university are financed by the local education authority, which would pay for three years of study only

Both of the above reasons are getting tenuous. There is a general understanding that A levels have gotten watered-down, and school-leavers are not so specialised (the latter is probably a good thing!). And students increasingly have to pay for their own education, either though government loans, or the lucky ones get their parents to foot the bill.

Reasons why the three-year system is coming under pressure, and not merely losing its historical justification, include:

  • Students have to work part-time to avoid large debts. So they can't be expected to put in three years of intensive full-time study, as was the traditional expectation. With respect to this, most people over age 40 seem to maintain an outmoded image of the student lifestyle.

  • A consequence of the three-year timescale is that it can be very unforgiving for students who fail exams. This aspect gains added urgency from the recent debate (here's a nice article) about what universities should be doing to help disadvantaged students (who are more likely to have part-time jobs, and hence fail exams).

  • International standards in general, and EU in particular, envisages at least four years of undergraduate study. I see loads of CVs from prospective PhD students from overseas and they nearly all have 4 years of undergraduate study, and often have additional masters-level study.

  • Putting the above points together, the reason why in most countries you expect to take 4+ years is precisely because you want the flexibility to re-take exams where necessary while holding down a part time job.

What's the way forward? I think the change can be achieved incrementrally; for starters universities should allow students to graduate "a year late"; if a student needs to pass one or two modules in order to get a degree, let him re-take the exams the following year, attend the courses, pay reduced fees for that year.

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