Magazine

Is the first year of a degree a waste of time?

  • 3 November 2010
  • From the section Magazine
Female student asleep in lecture theatre
Image caption Do accelerated courses prepare students to cope under pressure - or result in burn-out?

The government is lifting the cap on university tuition fees to £9,000 by 2012. Will it increase demand for shorter, cheaper courses?

Few people forget their first days at university... The tentative introduction to the fellow fresher next door, hopelessly trying to navigate around a bewildering campus and wondering why everyone else seems more intelligent.

But how many would remember anything about their course during the first year?

Recollections are perhaps more likely to be of freshers' week and the student union bar than the lecture theatre, with students knowing that - so long as they pass the year - their performance will not affect their final qualifications. So is it worth it?

While the university funding debate focuses on raising the tuition fee cap to £9,000, the new financial realities are already dramatically altering the student experience.

Institutions are becoming more flexible in their delivery of courses, whether through part-time or distance learning options.

Not 'cheap alternative'

Mobile phone and internet technology is also likely to play an increasing role in offering undergraduates pondering £25,000 debts the cheaper option of studying from home, backed by occasional one-to-one tuition.

Another money-saving idea, mooted by Business Secretary Vince Cable, was to offer more degrees over two years.

The National Union of Students has given it a cautious welcome, saying extra choice helps students - particularly those short of funds or who do not want to delay careers.

However, its president, Aaron Porter, says accelerated degrees must not simply be a "cheap alternative".

"For many subjects the longer degree programme is vital to properly teach the subject," he says. "It allows the time for students to gain a deeper understanding and creates room for involvement in extra-curricular activities."

Fast-track, two-year courses are already being trialled at seven English universities, primarily in business-related subjects and law, with students giving up their long summer break in favour of a third semester.

Staffordshire University researchers calculated that graduates from its two-year courses ended up on average £20,000 better off than those studying over three years, once a year's salary and reduced tuition fees were taken into account.

Their results were also better, it found, by an average of two-thirds of a degree classification.

However, while fast-track students were more likely to be mature and begin courses with a better attitude, staff remained anxious about the perceived market value of their degrees.

'More intense'

And although the courses received an additional 25% in state funding, the report concluded that institutions would need to charge students 25 or 50% more per year than for traditional courses for them to become more widely viable.

Two-year degrees have been the norm at Buckingham since it was opened as the UK's only independent university in 1976.

Its dean of law, Professor Susan Edwards, says her course covers the same core areas as three-year degrees and broadly similar optional modules.

Image caption University should not just be about study, argue some

She believes it turns out the sort of graduates who work well under pressure that modern firms are looking for: "It's more intense but we produce students who employers know are going to deliver, prioritise and be focused."

The first six months' results do not count towards a student's final degree assessment, similar to the traditional first year at other universities.

That the university's four-term year - 40 teaching weeks separated by three fortnight breaks and a month off at Christmas - leaves little room for summertime relaxation is no great loss, Prof Edwards argues.

"What today's students do during the summer vacation is not to read around the subject but they find work to finance their studies," she says.

Despite this, Prof Edwards insists Buckingham's students can still throw themselves into the social aspects of university life thanks to a thriving student union with a range of societies.

'Academic sweatshops'

The university argues that when living costs are taken into account, its two-year courses prove cheaper than the alternatives, despite yearly tuition fees of £8,640.

Higher fees, it claims, allows it to fund a high student-tutor ratio (8:1), allowing it to better support students.

Prof Edwards believes a similar level of support would be essential if students at state-funded universities were to cope on shorter courses.

However one lecturers' union, the University and College Union, has branded two-year courses "education on the cheap" which creates "academic sweatshops".

Whatever the verdict on two-year courses, many see the university experience as being about not just an academic education, but an learning about other aspects of adult life.

Comedy writer and novelist Charlie Higson is a staunch believer in that and says accelerated learning misses the point.

"Two years is nothing. It's a waste of time," says Higson, who went to the University of East Anglia, in Norwich. "University is about changing you as a person - emotionally, culturally, spiritually - breaking away from your other life, meeting new people and having experiences."

The Fast Show star admits his first year was more about drink, drugs and sex than his degree in English American Literature and Film Studies. Only by the third year was he immersed in his text books.

Study and social life are about equally important, he reckons.

But while he "never had to show anyone a bit of paper" to prove he had a degree, meeting Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield changed the course of his life.

Higson penned the duo's sketches before making his on-screen debut in the Fast Show. University also led him to front a band for six years, while he credits the two unpublished novels he wrote as a student with laying the foundations for his later career as writer of the Young James Bond novels.

"It should be about increasing your potential in every direction. The academic side is part of that but you need to get a lot of other stuff out of your system too," he adds.

Whether university should simply be preparation for a good job or a life-changing experience is a matter for debate. But it appears students on the future may have to make more choices other than where to study and on which course.

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