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Academics call for 'pick-and-mix' degrees

Pic ‘n’ mix... degrees? (photo: Christophe Dune)

Pic ‘n’ mix... degrees? (photo: Christophe Dune)

The long-established system of three-year degrees is being brought into review by the higher education system, a new report has revealed.

According to universities in the UK, students need to be able to study on a “pick-and-mix” basis, allowing for more flexible degrees. The universities secretary John Denham suggests a “credits-based system,” where students can accumulate course credits at different times and different institutions. This is a radical overhaul of the current system that states people studying for a degree are to do so in a limited time frame and location.

Suggestions also include getting rid of the existing classification system and instead, implementing a report card which would document the accumulation of students’ achievements. Universities should also concentrate on expanding their campuses to countries abroad and modifying the academic calendar which many now see as ‘old-fashioned.’

This review has been developed in light of the fact that many people believe students should not enter full-time education immediately after having just finished school. Recent figures suggest that 42% of students now only study part-time. This is the main concern affecting the current academic calendar, which the vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, Christine King, says is unhelpful since these students are working at the same time as studying. “Certainly traditional university systems, timetables and calendars are constructed with little reference to the world of employment,” she added.

While many pro vice-chancellors support this drastic change, others are considerably less keen, such as Dr. David Law, the vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University. He believes that many of the new proposals are too idealistic and would not work in view of the “serious problem with current public expenditure.” While he agrees that students are likely to pick and mix their courses at different universities, he emphasises the unlikelihood of scrapping the structure of the academic calendar. “It’s harder to imagine that the academic year will be done with – it ties in well with the school year.” This view is consolidated by London South Bank University’s pro vice-chancellor, Peter McCaffery, who describes the academic year as a “quaint anachronism.”

Moreover, in times of economic recession, there is doubt as to whether the employers will co-operate in the funding of part-time and postgraduate students. This news comes about despite the agreement that universities should have a stronger affiliation with civil servants, schools and businesses. McCaffrey claims that “Academics should mix in business and government circles,” adding that we must, however, have the patience for this change to occur as it will take a long time.

As new proposals are considered and decisions are finalised over the next ten years, the tuition fee is an especially sensitive topic. With the revamping of the university system in discussion, student fees will have to adapt accordingly. Dr. Law points out that “This will be the key tension over the next decade.” While there is likely to be an increase in the amount students have to pay for their education, there will still be a charging limit to which universities must adhere, as is the case now.

Many students and professors at universities feel that this change is not too dissimilar to how they currently experience life on campus. Many colleges have already established links with other universities abroad, allowing students to spend a term or even a whole academic year in another country to continue their studies. Furthermore, a lot of courses currently offered by universities allow a system much like the proposed one, where students can choose elective courses from another school. One Sussex student says “Although I’m doing a Psychology degree, my elective course is in Spanish which is obviously completely different.” When asked if they enjoy the mix of studies, this student explains that, “I’m so glad I’m not doing the same subject all the time because that could get boring.” It seems highly likely that the new pick-and-mix degrees could be just the thing to keep students interested in their education, reducing the number of university drop-outs. At present, the proportion of students in the UK who fail to complete their degree course stands at a staggering 22.6 per cent.

In spite of varying views on the specific changes to the university system, there is a united support on the broadening of degrees in general. Paul Ramsden, the former vice-chancellor of Sydney University and current head of the UK-based Higher Education Academy, cites that “The curriculum needs to be a broader study of many different subject areas. We still specialise too early and that’s very damaging.” A wider range of degrees would also attract more students coming from various backgrounds and with different expectations, he added. The head of the institute of education at the University of Worcester, Professor Chris Robertson, advocates that universities should invest more in high-quality teaching in the following years.

Universities are pleased that their suggestions are being considered before ministers introduce any changes, but are doubtful as to whether their proposals will be successfully executed. A recent report issued by Universities UK foresees a 6% decline in student numbers over the next decade.

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