by Robyn Banks

Back in March, the MinoriTory government announced the idea of running fast track two year degree courses in the hope of saving students money. Last week the Times Higher Education supplement revealed that surveyed students from lower socio-economic backgrounds would be more likely to take this option up if it existed. Could the Tories’ apparently hare-brained scheme in fact be justified?

The survey findings, originally from The Student Room, found that 44% of students who received free school meals would be more interested in a two year degree than the standard-length equivalent. 42% of students whose parents didn’t go to university felt the same way. These findings suggest there is a positive case for instating two year degrees, to better serve the interests of this large proportion of students. But they also imply something less positive: the financial pressure of doing a standard three year degree is creating a major divide in the student population, along economic lines.

Alongside the introduction of two year degrees we would see the introduction of a two tier class system at universities

Following a raft of cuts to the support systems that help students bear the financial burdens of study, the average debt of a student graduating this year is above £50,000; for those from poorer backgrounds the figure surpasses £57,000. To put this in perspective, that’s over £20,000 more than the average deposit required of a first time home buyer. These crippling levels of debt are compounded by 6.1% interest that accumulates right from the start of study. It’s pretty clear that avoiding a year’s worth of loan-financed living expenses would be a major motivator for students looking to take a two year degree instead of the traditional three.

If the survey’s results are reflected in university applications, students from poorer backgrounds would take up places on fast track degrees at rates around 50% higher than their better-off counterparts. Alongside the introduction of two year degrees we would see the introduction of a two tier class system at universities. Those whose need to avoid debt is greater would miss out on much of the experience of going to university. Respondents to the Student Room survey express concerns that fast track students would become isolated from the communities in their campuses and cities, that overwork could impact negatively on their grades, and that added time pressures would increase rates of mental health problems. With mental health support services facing severe underfunding across the country, this is an extremely concerning prospect.

Tory policy has created not a market but a money grab

Shorter degrees would also have an effect on the quality of teaching. Courses are already becoming more streamlined towards creating career paths rather than expanding and challenging the minds of their students. The compression of courses will force a whole year of teaching into what would usually be the summer holidays, leading either to further stripping back of module choice, or to those modules not being taught to their best possible standard, increasing the risk of them being cut because they don’t make the grade their institution requires.

If the real goal of this policy is to help poorer students avoid debt, the government could find different ways to do that without putting students’ welfare and teaching at risk by exacerbating class divides in higher education. Their stated aim is to create a fully competitive market in higher education, in which universities would only charge fair rates for the quality of teaching they provide. However, this has been proven a false ideal – every university that legally can charges the full £9250 a year. Tory policy has created not a market but a money grab in the sector. If fees were abandoned and we returned to a higher education sector that was fully supported by the state, with properly funded mechanisms to help those less well off, then we could avoid the dangerous mess that two year courses are set to create. But alas, if there’s one thing that’s certain about modern HE policy, it’s that this government cares more for its flawed market ideology than for student welfare.

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