Accelerated Degrees: widening student choice in Higher Education

Closes 11 Feb 2018

Introduction by Jo Johnson

An undergraduate degree studied at a Higher Education provider in England requires a significant investment of time and money, for the individual and for wider society.   And it is a key lever of social mobility.  Our progressive system of student finance has ensured that over time, what was once a prized good available only to the socially advantaged, has become more accessible to everyone.    

But the way in which degrees are taught and studied has stayed largely unchanged, deterring some from higher education.  The vast majority of providers offer their students the same traditional, inflexible three years of study regardless of subject, spread out across thirty weeks each year, broken by a long summer vacation every year.

Our vision for higher education - as a driver for social mobility and engine of national productivity - is rightly ambitious.  The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 embodies that vision - widening both choice and value for students, driving a model of education that works equally and fairly for all.

Most people considering applying to university have to balance the proven benefits of a degree against tuition fees and living costs.  They need to assess the likelihood of finding work, and the impact of deferring full-time employment for three years.  This balance is a particular challenge for mature students, whose numbers have been falling in recent years

Accelerated degrees have the potential to drive a substantive transformation in higher education.  Students on accelerated courses can secure a degree qualification in their preferred subject, studying the same content for the same number of weeks as the standard equivalent degree, subject to the same quality assurances.  But by studying for more weeks each year, they are able to graduate within only two years, and with significantly lower loan commitments.  

About three quarters of the providers who responded to our 2016 Call for Evidence reported seeing a demand for accelerated courses from students or employers.  It is therefore frustrating that so few students have access to such courses.  In England, of the approximately 1.5 million undergraduates currently enrolled, only around 2,500 - 0.2% - are studying accelerated degrees.

We accept there are higher annual costs to significantly wider accelerated provision.  Existing fee cap arrangements do inhibit wider provision of accelerated courses.  Barriers across the sector are real.  New arrangements are needed to match tuition fees to the higher in-year cost - but total lower overall cost per degree - of delivering the typical 90 weeks of teaching across two years instead of three.  

Under the new fee arrangements, while the standard degree student is completing their third year of study, an accelerated degree student will be starting their first year of employment, typically earning around £19,000 in that first year.  Their tuition loans will be in the region of £5,500 less than their three-year peers - around 20% less than a standard course.   The accelerated degree graduate could end what would have been a third year of study over £25,000 better off than their standard-course contemporaries, yet with the same degree qualification and all the benefits it brings.  

In setting those new arrangements, we need to balance the interests of student and provider.  The annual fee for accelerated degrees must offer providers a realistic incentive to manage the necessary changes to traditional teaching and support arrangements.  But it must also offer students genuine value for money and a significant reduction in the total cost of graduation.  

At the right level, increased accelerated degree provision and take-up will also benefit taxpayers.  More accelerated degrees will result in higher rates of repayment and a higher proportion of students who will repay their loans in full.  Together with lower tuition fees, the lower debt burden for students and faster entry into the workplace, these factors all combine to reduce the overall cost to the public purse of higher education.  

The Higher Education and Research Act gives the OfS a duty to promote greater choice and opportunities for students - including, as set out on the face of the Act, wider provision of accelerated courses.  We will work closely together through the new regulatory framework to both regulate and promote accelerated degrees.  

Our vision is for a decade of ambitious innovation across the higher education landscape, enabled by the new fee arrangements and championed by the OfS.  Providers will have the scope to change their cost base, breaking out of traditional patterns of estate use and teaching to embrace this form of provision across the widest possible range of courses.  

This in turn will give students a genuine choice in what to study, where to study and how to study – traditional or accelerated.  Graduates will carry the same enthusiasm and drive that made accelerated degrees attractive to them into their working lives.  Our aspiration is for the number of students enrolled on accelerated degree courses to build over the next decade to around 5% of the total undergraduate population, and for an additional 100,000 students to have studied on this basis over that period. The result will be a true transformation in the landscape of English higher education and graduate employment.  

Our plan is for new arrangements to be place for Academic Year 2019/20.  This consultation responds to the sector’s evidence on barriers to accelerated degree provision.  Now we need the sector to reciprocate – to seize the opportunity to develop flexible, innovative degree courses offering real choice and value to students.   

 

Jo Johnson