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Last Updated: Monday, 16 October 2006, 17:01 GMT 18:01 UK
Time's the key in two-year degree
By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

Student Gemma Drew
For Gemma Drew, fast track is a way to realise an ambition sooner
New university courses mean students in England can graduate with a full honours degree in just two years, rather than the traditional three.

The fast-track degrees are being tried in a handful of universities, to mixed fortunes.

Staffordshire University says its law and geography degrees have proved popular - though the other subjects it tried, English and philosophy, "did not recruit".

This may reflect the more vocational focus of the sort of people attracted to the "quickie" degrees - but otherwise they are a mix of young and more mature students.

Saving one year's costs - 3,000 in tuition fees and perhaps twice that in living expenses - is a factor, but not necessarily the prime motivation.

Gemma Drew, 18, from Quarry Bank near Dudley in the West Midlands, has just started on the course to being a lawyer.

It is something she has wanted to do since she was 11. She took law, psychology and German A-levels.

She had already been accepted by Staffordshire when the university got the Law Society's approval to run the two-year degree and sent her a leaflet about it.

"It appealed to me," she said.

It took so long anyway to qualify that having to do a year less was an advantage, she said.

"All I would have to do is work through the summer."

Part-time work

The courses use the summer vacation as a sort of third term, with a mixture of summer school and distance learning.

Students are told they will not have to study more each week than those on a three-year degree but they will study for more weeks in the year.

I come from a very, very poor working class family and obviously then working class kids didn't go to university
Helen Wallace
Ms Drew believes she can handle this - while still working 16 hours a week in the student union bar.

"I always intended to work while here," she said.

"I've set aside time to do the work. At the moment they are not really piling it on anyway. They have told us to say if we can't do it."

The university is making provision for people to "slow down" and transfer to a three-year course at various points during the two years, if necessary.

"A lot of my family and friends are quite concerned that I would overwork myself," Ms Drew said. "But I'm quite determined to do it."

She feels that having done law at A-level has given her a head start.

Of the 19 students on the fast-track law course, half are school-leavers like Ms Drew and half are older.

Student Helen Wallace
Helen Wallace needs a degree before she can train to teach
Three of those on the fast track geography course are aiming to be school teachers - like Helen Wallace, who lives locally with her children aged 16, 14, and five-year-old twins.

The former nurse manager "retired" in the 90s to live on Spain's Costa del Sol where her husband is still pursuing his property development business.

But, feeling her life needed a boost, she decided to retrain.

"I always wanted to be a teacher, but I come from a very, very poor working class family and obviously then working class kids didn't go to university - it was just not an option," she said.

"Even when I mentioned going to college my father didn't talk to me."

Teaching means having a degree. Ms Wallace decided to capitalise on a love of geography, and when she saw the fast-track course in Staffordshire's prospectus it seemed ideal.

A talk with the geography admissions tutor, Dr Louise Bonner, clinched it.

"She could have sold ice to Eskimos," Ms Wallace said.

I have never had a summer break for the last 24 years so that's not an issue
Helen Wallace
She will still have to do a one-year postgraduate teaching certificate and figured that, at the age of 40, a year saved while qualifying meant an extra year's "employability".

"I have worked hard all my life. I have never had a summer break for the last 24 years so that's not an issue," she said.

"My husband thinks I'm batty anyway, but he knows I have a need to be driven."

'Here to study'

She said her teenagers, who would be helping look after the twins, were supportive.

UCU branch secretary Martin Fiddler
Academics have concerns about the educational impact
"My 14-year-old is horrified that mummy is going to be a teacher, but they are both wonderful."

And she is not worried about missing out on the social side of being at university.

"Student life is probably not for me anyway. I'm just here to study."

Another concern raised by some about the fast-track degrees is that they devalue the currency of higher education.

Martin Fiddler, branch secretary of the University and College Union at Staffordshire, stresses that the lecturers involved are all volunteers and that relations with the management are harmonious.

But he says: "To a large extent we see a degree as more than just a cramming process, so we have some concerns about the educational aspect of this.

"It's a long process of developing critical and analytical skills."

The head of Staffordshire's academic development institute, Steve Wyn Williams, questions the traditional view.

head of Staffordshire's academic development institute, Steve Wyn Williams
There are a lot of people defending their interests and the historical model
Steve Wyn Williams
"There are a lot of people defending their interests and the historical model, but I would challenge them to say what is the way to acquire that knowledge and those skills?" he said.

"Why three years?"

Fast-track degrees have been tried before without success.

And there is a potential block in the Bologna Process, which is an attempt to harmonise the nature of degrees across Europe by 2010 - with honours being a three-year course.

Dr Wyn Williams does not anticipate all subjects offering two-year degrees, and there are staff workload issues to be negotiated.

But he says some can fit with Staffordshire's aims of increased flexibility and diversification in higher education, and the need to improve the skills of the local economy.

He also assumes - somewhat controversially - that the 3,000 legal cap on fees will be lifted, whereupon he believes shorter degrees - with three "teaching blocks" in the year - will become more common elsewhere too.

"It's the future."

Two-year honours degrees offered
18 Apr 06 |  Education
Two-year courses 'devalue degree'
19 Apr 06 |  Education

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