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

Female student asleep in lecture theatre 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.

Start Quote

Charlie Higson

Two years is nothing - a waste of time - university is about changing you as a person”

End Quote Charlie Higson Comedy writer

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.

Scene from student comedy The Young Ones 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.

Below is a selection of your comments

For engineering degrees, I remember that at one point the debate was whether three years was too short. Of course it helped that back then we had grants and all the fees paid, but having interviewed recent graduates for jobs, I'm beginning to think there was merit in that view.

Dave, Cambridge, UK

Today's degrees could be taught in a fraction of the time. I've been a university lecturer for a decade and in that time so much has been removed from syllabi that the degrees I teach now are equivalent to the first year of the degree I took twenty years ago. There are many reasons for this, some of them acceptable, but the bottom line is that academics have to cater for a much wider ability range, and thus have a tendency to defer to the lowest common denominator. We could offer today's degrees in a shorter time frame for those who just want a qualification to open up employment, and offer yesteryear's degrees on a more traditional timescale for those that have the ability and are actually interested in the subject. I fear for the future of higher education, something that I've devoted my life to. The changes that I've witnessed in the past twenty years, let alone the past twenty days, make me weep.

Stuart, Manchester

I totally agree, I did a first degree that took 3 years and had only 9 hours of teaching/tutorials a week. I was the last round of entrants to degrees before tuition fees were brought in in 1998 . My course could have easily been condensed into 1 year let alone 2. Yes the experience of University was a fun 3 years but afterwards I view the experience as a waste. If I was to do the course now and be paying for it I would have written a very strongly worded complaint letter to the University.

Emma, Manchester, England

Some caution is I think needed when it comes to international recognition of degree qualifications. After working for 6 years in Detroit I was interviewed for residency. The lawyer looked closely at my qualifications and asked about my BSc in Physics (Birmingham,1990). She asked if it was a four year degree. When I replied that it was a 3 year degree she made a note that this wouldn't be recognized as a BSc by the US authorities. Overseas undergraduate courses needed to be at least four years in length.

Adrian, Detroit, USA

Perhaps it depends on the course, the person and the reason for going to university. I am a mature student studying as a career progression to become a primary and early years teacher. As I do not have a degree, I am in the 2nd year of a 3 year B'ED. I would welcome the chance to study this over 2 years, with longer semesters as it would mean I could get back into the working force quicker, start earning a salary again sooner and have borrowed less maintenance and tuition fee loan. The life aspect? Please, younger students can owe more money if they feel that is more important to them.

Kay, London

There is one major issue I see with removing the long summer break from students degrees and that is people seem to forget that universities also do research. This time is used by academics to focus on that aspect of university life well as all of the regular extra curriculas, like outreach, summer schools, write research grants, read theses, prepare new materials, prepare for research assessment exercises, collaborate with other institutions, attend scientific meeting and conferences.

Fifi-T, Newcastle upon Tyne

For me, I am solely at Uni to get a degree! Most students see it as an opportunity to get a free loan and spend it on night after night drinking excursions. People see the 'Uni experience' as a time to escape any family constraints and experience 'freedom'. Universities promote drinking, lecturers encourage it as a form of socialising. Students turn up to lectures hungover and not at all fit for academic lessons. The grades one recieves in the first year do not count towards a persons degree and therefore students do not take it seriously enough. For those who want to learn and just get their degree its a hard battle to fight!

Abi, Somerset

Forget about the fees and debt, my first year at uni was the best year of my life. Worth every penny. Would I do it again with the burden of increased debt? Absolutely.

Chris Wright, London

My first year at university (Leeds) was very enjoyable, but an absolute waste of time. You only had to achieve 40% to make it into the 2nd year and none of your marks were carried over, so it essentially meant nothing at all. Not exactly a great way to instil a good work ethic in young people?!

Christiaan, London

I don't want to use online savings accounts built by software engineers with only a rudimentary knowledge of security; I don't want to drive cars designed by "engineers" with the knowledge of only a double A level; I don't want my country governed by people who spent a couple of years drinking and partying instead of studying the lessons of history etc. If mummy and daddy want to subsidise Billy and Betty £9k per year to drink themselves stupid before a career of shelf stacking, that's fine by me - more fool them!

Jay, Birmingham, West Midlands

A further issue with removing the summer break: the student loan doesn't even cover rent at many universities (mine didn't). I had to work throughout each summer in order to have enough money to live off for the next year. Without that break to work, I simply wouldn't have been able to afford my degree.

Neil Whitfield, Leeds, UK

A truly worthwhile degree course, one which the student will directly apply what they have learned within a profession, is (almost by definition) a long one. Becoming a doctor, engineer, scientist, all involve acquiring a lot of knowledge and skill, a process can't be achieved overnight, and these are the professions which the UK has massive skills shortages already, before the government starts on their crusade to deny these careers to anyone but the richest and subsidised poorest!

Rich, London

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