Ali Orr looks at the debate around accelerated degrees and asks whether demand for flexible provision means it is time for universities to accelerate.

One of Jo Johnson’s final acts before being shuffled across to the Department for Transport in January was to launch a consultation on accelerated degrees. Estimating that only 2,500 students in England are currently studying accelerated degrees, despite providers ‘seeing a demand for accelerated courses from students or employers’, he set out proposals aimed at stimulating that demand and setting in motion ‘a decade of ambitious innovation’ that would lead to an additional 100,000 students enrolling on such courses. So, is it time to accelerate?

To inform the National Centre’s response to the consultation, we brought together member universities and businesses at two roundtable events in London and Leeds, and explored their experiences of current provision, areas of likely demand and prospects for graduates of accelerated degree courses. Participants included representatives of universities and colleges across all mission groups and regions, and businesses across a broad range of sectors.

One of the first things to note is that there is rather a lot of flexible provision out there already, and that this provision is typically sustained through clear demand from students and employers. The Apprenticeship Levy, for example, has led to an increase in demand for flexibility from providers, many of whom have moved quickly to meet this demand.

As the Office for Students ruminates over what it means to ensure value for money for all students, it’s clear that cheaper won’t always mean better and that choice doesn’t always equal opportunity.

Among existing providers of accelerated degrees demand from learners remains low, but those who do enrol represent an important cohort for widening participation, with students often reporting that they would not have entered HE at all were it not for the opportunity to study locally and complete within two years. But for prospective students for whom debt aversion is a major factor, the growing availability of degree apprenticeships is likely to prove more enticing than the modest saving in tuition fees being proposed for two-year degrees.

And while we heard of demand from (mainly smaller) local employers for graduates of accelerated courses, who are considered to have shown the drive and commitment they are seeking, larger employers are more likely to be tempted by the Levy to use degree apprenticeships.

It’s not that there is objection to accelerated courses in principle – and recruitment processes are generally blind to course duration, even if they sometimes overlook the providers most likely to offer accelerated degrees – but the rub for students may lie in the selection processes that focus on work experience, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities.

Students could still be enticed by a course that has been co-designed and developed with employers, perhaps part-sponsored or badged as leading directly into a graduate programme, and for employers with acute skills shortages there could be merit in designing a bespoke onboarding programme to support these students.

As the Office for Students ruminates over what it means to ensure value for money for all students, it’s clear that cheaper won’t always mean better and that choice doesn’t always equal opportunity. Universities report that duration and concerns over debt often drive student choices about whether to take a placement year or to complete their degree within three years, or in deciding between a three-year Bachelor degree or a four-year integrated Masters (MSci, MEng etc).

So rather than just focusing on the provision of three-year degrees in two, our roundtables suggested that a wider view of flexible provision and how to stimulate demand would be helpful.

Representatives of both businesses and universities could see the value of an MChem chemistry degree with specialisation in informatics, delivered in three years rather than four.

Flexibility can only be a good thing for students and employers alike, but the future is unlikely to be all about two-year degrees.

By Ali Orr, NCUB Talent and Employability Consultant

Published: 15 February 2018

More NCUB Blogs by Ali:

Moving social mobility up the agenda

Collective action to break the deadlock on diversity and social mobility

Five take home messages from #UVAC2017

The Benefits of Degree Apprenticeships

Degree apprenticeships: A game changer?