The pros and cons of proposed two-year undergraduate degrees

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research & Innovation, recently suggested the UK introduce two-year ‘fast track’ degrees.

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, recently suggested the UK introduce two-year ‘fast track’ degrees. Here we look at the pros and cons of the idea, and decide whether ultimately it is a good or bad idea. 

The pros

One of the main benefits of doing so is that you enter the job market earlier and save money on living costs in third year. For most degrees the first year doesn’t count towards your final grade, so it can be argued that this is trimming the fat and making degrees a lot more efficient. 

It’s not a new idea, either: Two-year undergraduate degrees certainly are possible, as the University of Buckingham proves – 90% of the undergraduate degrees there last two years.

Similarly, research carried out by Staffordshire University found that students who undertake a two-year course gain, on average, two-thirds of a degree classification higher than other graduates. This correlation suggests that students are able to perform even better under stricter time pressures. 

By introducing two-year degrees, students will have a wider choice on how to extend their education, increasing flexibility and giving them more control over their learning. 

The cons

The price of one year can reach £14,000 rather than £9,000, meaning you can pay £28,000 for two years compared to the current maximum of £27,000 for three years.

To make sure the degrees are of the same high-quality, term-time would be longer and there is a worry that staff would be on year-round teaching-only contracts, losing the time to undertake research.

Professor Barry Smith, Director, Institute of Philosophy at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, is against the two-year degrees.

‘As well as acquiring information, it takes time to consolidate it, to transform it into knowledge,’ he said. 

‘Reducing the currently required time to complete a degree puts at risk, for short-term gain, the life-long benefit of having enough time to develop intellectually, personally and professionally,’

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Students may also lose out on extra-curricular experiences that are vital to the university experience. Plus, a lot of students work part-time to be able to afford to live. Losing any extra spare time may jeopardise their ability to live well at university, especially if they’re studying somewhere notoriously expensive like London.

It is also important to ask whether an 18 year old will be able to cope with the intensity of a two-year degree course. 

Luke McDonagh, a Lecturer in the Law School at City, University of London, teaches two-year fast-track degrees to those who already have a degree. 

‘At City Law School we have a two-year Graduate Entry LLB degree. This programme only accepts students who already have a degree (in a subject other than law). This means they come to the programme with a certain academic maturity that we could not expect from an 18 year old who has just finished his/her A-Levels. For them, there are undoubted benefits to the two-year format – as students in their early or mid-20s they have a clear idea of their career prospects and they are very focused on their studies,’ he said.

‘But there are also disadvantages – the course can be a whirlwind: it goes very quickly. It is more challenging to study law in a compressed two-year period, and even some of our GELLB students find it tough going, though the best students find the intensity rewarding,’ he adds.

‘It would not be easy for an undergraduate to do it. One thing any 18 year old considering a two-year law degree would need to think about is whether they would really have the time in just two years to enjoy being at university – the social element, the societies, sports teams etc. There is a lot more to university as an undergraduate than just doing the exams as quickly as you can. It is a life-building experience – one that ought not be rushed.’ 

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So are two-year fast track degrees a good idea?

Of course two-year degrees could and do work, the real question is whether the trade off is really worth it for undergraduates and staff.

For undergraduates, they aren’t really saving enough in comparison to a three year course for it to be particularly attractive, and many students will likely agree that they spent their first year adjusting to the often tumultuous change. And one of the greatest benefits of higher education is surely extra curricular activities, i.e. developing new passions and trying out different activities. Is an extra year in the job market worth losing out on that? 

Then there’s the staff. There is a worry they will lose out on their research opportunities as well as losing time to adjust courses and ensure quality management. Even if quality is maintained, the extra pressure on them to increase their workload is unlikely to be welcomed with open arms. 

And let’s address the biggest elephant in the room – does this suggestion not reek of an increasing capitalisation of education? Is this really where we want to see our education system heading? I’m certainly not buying it. 


Written by Katherine Hockley, Digital Content Designer, CoSector – University of London

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