By Robyn Banks

Last week the government announced plans to allow students to complete an undergraduate degree within two years instead of the usual three. To facilitate this fast-track system, universities will be permitted to charge £13,000 a year in tuition fees for these courses. As many have already noted, it’s easy to see what this announcement really is: another step in the marketisation of higher education. UCU general secretary Sally Hunt described it as ‘another misguided attempt to allow for-profit colleges access to UK higher education.’ The government have become less and less tactless when it comes to putting profit before the education of students.

If this proposal goes ahead, it will have a massive negative impact on students and teaching staff. Three year courses compressed into two will require students to work through the breaks that students on a normal course would receive. This will increase the already unacceptable levels of stress students face, and will correspondingly increase the prevalence and severity of mental health issues.

It is well documented now that these issues are spiralling out of control. In the academic year 2014-15 Russell Group universities reported a 28% rise in students applying for counselling since the rise of fees to £9000. We can only imagine how students will struggle when they cut into their downtime in order to try and get through their degree quicker. This added pressure on the students who choose to take it will put even more stress on the inadequate student mental health services that universities offer. If the government’s idea comes to fruition it will start a ticking time bomb, counting down to catastrophe for universities and students when these services implode.

What the government have suggested here is nothing short of an attempt to drive profit to the heart of our education

Two year degrees will also have a huge effect on teaching staff. As we’ve reported in the Radical before, a great many teaching staff in UK universities are employed on zero hour, fixed term contracts. In some departments at UEA half of all teaching (or more) is delivered by these staff. Many are PhD students, and are already facing significant stress around how much they work they will get from semester to semester. Given their precarious employment, these staff struggle to find the time to get their own research done. The breaks in teaching between semesters are both crucial catch-up time and periods of unpaid uncertainty. Two year courses would give these staff more opportunities to get the work they need to pay the rent, but at the cost of the time they need to keep up with their studies – a painful choice to say the least.

What the government have suggested here is nothing short of an attempt to drive profit to the heart of our education. Lately we have seen the marketisation of education step up a gear with the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework, and links to the National Student Survey, which will make students complicit in further fee increases. With the two year degree policy, the Tories have thrown profit-focussed universities another get rich quick bone. Those that pick it up will find an opportunity to rake in some cash – so long as they’re happy to ignore the welfare of the students on the courses, the casual staff who would teach them, and the full-time staff who would also see their workload pile up. Here’s hoping they do the right thing, and throw it back in Jo Johnson’s face.

Featured image via Riches Corner

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