The Culkin Degree

The eye-catching announcement in the recent list of amendments to the Government’s HE Bill was to make possible two-year degrees. Effectively, the idea is to fast track the undergraduate degree, paying the same amount for three-year degrees (£27,000) but at a cost of £13,500 rather than £9,000 each year. The logic, I think, is that this flexibility permits the brightest and most able students to whiz through university and into the real world as soon as possible. And I suppose there are precedents elsewhere in the education system, but they are unusual. For example, it’s unusual in the UK but elsewhere it is not unheard of for bright students to take their GCSEs, A-levels or equivalents a year early.

There’s an underlying ethos here that education is a means to an end, and not a useful thing in itself. The joy of learning, and of knowledge, is no longer part of the equation. You are paying for a certificate and you want value for money! Why mess around with long university holidays temping at carphone warehouse or engaging in lowbrow repartee with similarly overqualified shelf packers at IKEA, when mummy and daddy had a trust fund so you can avoid all that nonsense? (I should note here, I do see that for some the short-sharp-shock of a 2 year £27k bill might make a certain financial sense for those of more limited means, but I don’t think that is why the ideas is proposed.)


Anyone who has been to university ought to know that the enduring benefits come from the knowledge you acquire, the friends you make, and the ways you develop personally. I have a few certificates, but I must admit I don’t know where they are at the moment… they are probably in the green box file under the printer (most things are in there). But I value more the friends I made at school and university – especially, although I won’t go into that, over the past, difficult few weeks – and the lessons, sometimes very tough, I learned about myself. I very much believe that my future would have been poorer in many ways, and my prospects diminished, if I had only two years as an undergraduate.

Accelerated degrees are not of themselves a problem. There are two problems. One, more general, which is that across the education system loving to learn has ceased to be the goal. The knowledge, the experience isn’t valued any more. What is valued as the qualification. That is why so many academics revealed total disbelief when students ask them for helpful feedback or expect personal tuition because the knowledge doesn’t matter any more if it doesn’t deliver grade. I don’t know how you fix this one, short of moving to a society where we all just chill out a bit more…

The second problem with two-year degrees is connected with the reason why so few schools favour accelerated pathways to GCSEs and A-levels. Schools, as I said last week, typically recognise that young people’s education isn’t exclusively about the grades. That might surprise some, but I know many teachers and while the pressures on schools to get good grades, and the metrics used to assess them are every bit as pernicious as those which will be employed in the TEF, they recognise too that they have a responsibility for their students well-being. If I’m honest, structures to support students well-being in universities are less effective although they are extensive, and academics have the same concern for their students’ well-being.

We face a crisis in student mental health at all our universities. Beginning life as an independent adult is a testing time. A handful of students at 18 years of age might be able to complete a two year degree without the need for the social, emotional and personal development that’s the space of a three-year degree affords. But the pressure to take a two year degree will be great, particularly on a high achievers, who are likely over represented in the group of young people with mental health problems in education. In my experience it is life – mental health problems, failed relationships, financial problems – that explain educational underachievement for many students: strong universities admit only students who have excelled academically already… it is the rest of life that gets in the way of continuing educational achievement all too often.

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Two-year degrees will compound this crisis and devalue learning. And, anecdotally, child stars in other industries (notably TV and film) do not have a distinguished record of personal and emotional well-being into adulthood. And then there’s that antique expert kid who every Brit of a certain generation knows from Wogan. I am sure some do, but what message do we want to send about the value of education and the value of people? That is the ethos that underlies the current HE bill and explains what it is getting wrong.

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