University is about the consumption of facts as fast as possible to be regurgitated in order to pass exams that will provide students with a ticket to the next stage in the production line. I’m joking, of course. But ex-universities minister Jo Johnson isn’t when he adopts this straitjacket understanding of higher education in his narrative directed at extending the provision of two-year undergraduate degrees in England. This proposal takes too crude a view of education and is an unnecessary acceleration of a process which is so much more than gaining a degree.
Being in the closing stages of the second year of my three-year degree, I think I am perfectly placed to add my voice to the debate surrounding whether universities in England should offer two-year “accelerated” degrees; and try to persuade you that it is a bad deal for students and universities. Under plans for fast-track degrees, proponents focus their argument on lower student debt, quicker achievement of a degree, and a faster entry into the labour market. It is true that students would be carrying a lighter load of debt upon donning a mortarboard – whether fees are capped at £11 100 or at the higher fee of £13 500 which would pull tuition costs level with three-year degrees overall – because they would pay one year less in living costs and would be earning in the graduate market more quickly. The government claims that students could be saving up to £25 000. However, are financial savings worthwhile when losses are made in other areas?
At the heart of this debate are the more fundamental questions of why we go to university and what education should aspire to achieve, as well as the ever-present questions of what we want from life and how we perceive money. If university was just about gaining a degree, then getting to that point one year sooner certainly appeals to efficiency. However, I’m sure I do not stand alone in saying that university is not something to be endured and is so much more than lectures, seminars, and exams.
Indeed, I probably spend the least of my time at university on those three things. I came to university to have a bloody good time (university is meant to provide us with the best years of our lives, right?) and in the process hopefully transform from a dependent 18 year old into a version of myself much more equipped for entering the real world. Simply doing a degree would fall short of those ambitions. Yet a two-year pathway would only leave time for studying towards a degree, since students would be heaped with the same academic content as a three-year route, only with the burden of having to complete it all one year faster. There would not be time for involvement in sports clubs and societies, and that should be reason enough to shelve policies for more accelerated degrees. Societies are equally as important as a degree since they contribute to what you hope to display with a degree – employability – while providing students with solid friendships, life long memories and ways to reduce stress.
As such, factory-like efficiency arguments that two-year degrees would create the same product, only built faster, are wrong. It won’t be the same product, just like pasta boiled at a higher temperature for a shorter time does not taste as good. On the fast-track, students would not have time to pursue their interests outside of their course, which in turn deprives students of the true university experience, suffocates personal development and fails to safeguard mental health. Instead, it would lead to burnout of students and higher levels of stress for a generation which already experiences excessive worry. In sum, university is about much more than just gaining a degree. It is about thought, reflection and personal development which are all things to be facilitated, encouraged, and treasured. Jo Johnson’s fast-track plans fail to recognise this, and should be terminated in their infancy.