Fast Track to Nowhere

The Foam Fight in St. Salvators Quad, University of St. Andrews.

The Foam Fight in St. Salvators Quad, University of St. Andrews.

This week I saw an article from the Guardian on proposals for a new fast-track style of degree, and it hit me right in the guts.

This is the article. Go read it. tldr; the proposal is to offer the option of squishing a three year UG degree into two years, for the same cost and with significantly less break time.

 

There are a variety of reasons why this is a horrible, terrible, very bad, no good idea.

1. Flexibility

The supporters of this idea are couching it in terms of flexibility. And yes, flexibility is and will continue to be key in the development of HE for the foreseeable future. But flexibility can be achieved in many many alternative ways: distance learning, blended learning, digitality, modular payment and build your own degree models. And these can all be absorbed within the existing system, they can modify and augment it, help it to be supple and agile. That’s flexibility.

Accelerated degrees are not about flexibility. Accelerated degrees are based upon the principle that quicker is better, and that cramming for an exam is an improvement on long-term, reinforced, deep and rich learning.

I call bullshit.

2. Cost

The fact that the fee cap was raised in the first place makes me f***ing furious. I was among the first students who were given a loan, rather than a grant, and that made me sad, but I could deal with it. But the fact that students are now so restricted as to where they can go, because of the literal mortgage now hanging over their head just cements my opinion that the Tories only want other rich white privilegers to gain any kind of tertiary education.

And now this fast track degree, designed, remember to increase flexibility, is going to cost the same as a degree taken over three or four years? You won’t get a holiday to earn the money to pay for your degree or, shock horror, have a break from the intensity of the experience. Oh no. You might…MIGHT…save on living costs (yeah, like I believe that’ll actually be a thing), but you’ll pay for it in your social and personal lives and the quality of your overall experience, as well as with an increased price tag per year.

Again, I call B-S.

3. Staff Workload

Can we just stop for a minute, and think about what academic and administrative staff at universities actually do? They work out timetables (based on staff and room availability, and, in the case of undergrad courses in particular, other courses and commitments), write courses (DL and Campus Based), produce the explanatory media, build reading lists, design and mark assessments, dissertations and theses, act as pastoral and academic tutors for tens of undergrad and MA students, and as thesis supervisors for doctoral candidates, work out appropriate credit weightings, organize field trips, run research projects, publish, and try to get their REF ratings for their department. In the summer, they get to keep themselves up to date on their field of expertise, and for many, it’s the only time a holiday is possible. I should note, that the summer is also one of the best times for PhD candidates to get some work done in a quieter department, when they themselves (often working as GTAs) have less administrative commitments.

Layering an accelerated course on top of what is already there has the potential to cause so much social and administrative havoc and teaching confusion that I can’t even bear to extrapolate.

4. Ethos

Why do we educate? Why do students keep coming to university?

Yeah, OK. I’m not naive enough to imagine that it’s nothing at all to do with getting a job and earning good money. But we’ve started to come around to the point at which certain industries are starting to drop degree requirements due, quite reasonably, to the desire to increase diversity within their ranks. To a point at which a graduate earning freeze is becoming more apparent and there are more graduates working jobs which don’t require a degree (impacting on non-graduates) or draw upon their knowledge or skills.

If we’re not teaching students for the purpose of their career, what are we teaching them for?

Call me a hopeless Romantic if you like, but I was always of the impression that a degree wasn’t all, if at all, about what job you got at the end of it. I thought that the purpose of a degree was to show you methods of critical thinking, to open your eyes to the accumulated knowledge of humankind, to cement, celebrate and perpetuate the work of thousands of years which has taken us from the first fires to the Philae Lander, to help you become a human with a historical, scientific and social consciousness. I thought a degree was an opportunity to pursue a subject you loved, if you loved it enough, to play with it for the hell of it and without thought for any financial recompense. You can call me privileged, if you like, for feeling secure enough to not worry about money when I was a student, and to pursue a subject I loved even though I knew it was highly likely to have bugger all to do with any job I might want to pursue.* But when it looks like a degree won’t actually be helping you that much anyway, at least I can say I loved what I did. And when those for whom finances matter are already being priced out of the university marketplace, it seems disingenuous to argue that the financial reward at the end is all that matters. If you can’t get in in the first place, any reward that might come is only ever going to be a pipe dream.

I cannot restate how furious I am that, once more, people are being barred from tertiary education not because of their skill or desire, but because of the lottery of financial circumstances. And that they’re made to feel less as a consequence makes my stomach turn.

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I’m not saying that the standard three year undergrad is a perfect model. It’s not, by any means. There’s no perfect model of education, and there’s no pattern that’s going to suit everyone.

But when more and more of the sector is being forced into a business model, as students become clients rather than young colleagues, and as the value placed upon education becomes more about how much you can contribute to the market than it is about your growth as an intellectual and socially conscious human being, I can’t help but feel that Fast Track degrees like this are one more step to a scroll-down-world in which the only thing that matters is the insta-glamor of profit.

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*My UG degree was in Medieval History. Seriously, the jobs most related to that degree are teaching Medieval History to more Historians, or working for the Secret Service. Go figure.