Trials open debate over duration of degrees
As Hong Kong prepares to move to a four-year undergraduate structure, Britain and the United States have been running pilot schemes to 'shrink' the degree.
In England, Anglia Ruskin was one of seven universities to pilot two-year degrees instead of the three-year norm, while in the US, Arcadia University has trialled a three-year model, one year shorter than the traditional four years it takes to complete a degree in that country.
Reducing costs for students was the key motivation in both countries, reaching out to those who might not be able to afford the time or money for longer study, the British Council's Going Global conference heard.
In opening the debate, 'Stretching or shrinking the bachelor degree: four versus three versus two - who has got it right?' Professor Malcolm Worton, vice-provost of University College London, said: 'This is much more than a numbers game. It goes to the heart of what education is about.'
He asked if duration mattered -and what could be gained with the extra time, and what would be lost if it was reduced.
Professor Edmond Ko, chairman of the Curriculum Development Council in Hong Kong and senior dviser to the vice-president for academic affairs at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, put the case for the new four-year model. He said this was linked to the wider reform of the academic structure, with secondary education reduced by one year, from seven to six years. Education, he said, had gone beyond acquiring knowledge.
'In Hong Kong, students don't ask 'why' enough.'
Unlike in Britain or the US, the four-year standard was appropriate because Hong Kong universities weren't catering for as many mature students.
Professor Sandra Hollis, pro vice-chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University, shared the results of the pilot funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, aimed at widening access to higher education in Britain.
Nearly all of the students, who embarked on its two-year undergraduate courses, were older than 21, and wanted to finish a degree more cheaply and quickly. It appealed to those who wanted to reduce the debt they would be burdened with on graduation, which she estimated could exceed GBP45,000 (HK$564,550), with fee increases to up to GBP9,000 next year. 'As prices rise, numbers [of applications] shrink,' she said.
She insisted that in shortening the degree to two years, academic content was not diluted. Time was saved by not taking long summer vacations, she said.
The pilot was a success, with fewer students dropping out and more proceeding to postgraduate study -one to the University of Cambridge.
However, she pointed out that the trial did not mean all British degrees should shrink to two years, but that it was important to give students a choice that met their circumstances.
Anglia Ruskin had also sought to meet different needs by teaming up with employers to offer degrees in the workplace, such as a custom-made BA in sales for Harrods, and a BA in management and leadership for Barclays.
Professor Steve Michael, provost of Arcadia University, explained that his university's three-year model was suited to brighter students who could also use new approaches to learning -including accessing information on the internet and other information and communications technology tools- to cut learning time.
'The question is not who has got it right [Britain or Hong Kong], but what is right for the student,' he said.
Duration did matter to Fang Xiao, assistant director of University of Hull's international office, who attended the session.
She said the two-year model risked damaging Britain's reputation.
Ken Wong, associate head of the Centre for International Degree Programmes (CIPD), University of Hong Kong's School of Professional and Continuing Education (HKU SPACE), said after the session that there was a need in Hong Kong for more flexible degree duration to suit different learners, including adults.
However, he added that two years was unlikely be accepted in Hong Kong, as the system moves to standard four-year courses.
While universities in Britain, US and Hong Kong were focusing on duration, Dr Carrie Willis, executive director of the Vocational Training Council, wanted to see greater flexibility for adult learners in how they paced their degrees. 'We also want to determine the number of credits needed to achieve the learning outcomes that fit with the needs of industry,' she said.
Katherine Forestier is director of education and society at the British Council Hong Kong