Two-year degrees may hold key to wider participation, says Rammell

Two-year degree courses could provide a way of luring more students from poorer backgrounds to university, Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, told university heads this week.

Mr Rammell said universities would have to take a more diverse approach to providing higher education in the future.

His speech, delivered at the annual conference of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, follows a pilot scheme launched in five universities to see if three-year degrees could be compressed into two-year programmes.

Mr Rammell said: "It doesn't mean lowering standards. If we can get this right, two-year degree courses could offer opportunities for students who can't afford to take three years to study. We are awaiting the outcomes of how more intensive courses could operate in order to decide how to move forward."

He added: "Universities have to be radically different in the way they meet the needs of students. More flexible models are required, reforming how people access higher education provision."

Liz Beaty, director of learning and teaching at Hefce, said that to date this was the strongest support Mr Rammell had given to the subject of flexible learning.

But Michael Driscoll, head of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities and vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, said universities would not be keen to run these programmes if it were purely a cost-saving measure.

He argued that it would cost more in staff time to get students to complete three years of study in two years.

The Government's attempts to boost the number of students from low-income families, however, are unlikely to succeed - according to the architect of the fees system in Australia.

Bruce Chapman, who designed Australia's version of top-up fees - the Higher Education Contribution Scheme - 17 years ago, said he expected the socioeconomic mix of students to stay the same long after top-up fees were introduced.

Speaking ahead of an admissions tutors' conference hosted by the Universities and Colleges Admissions System this week, Professor Chapman said: "All the data suggests that tuition fees have no effect on the access of the poor.

"In Australia, the proportion of young people from poor backgrounds is just the same as it was before our version of fees was introduced. My guess is that in five years' time, after fees are introduced in the UK, there won't be a change in the socioeconomic mix."

Mr Rammell responded by saying that top-up fees, which will be introduced in September, were fairer to poor students than the upfront fees they would replace.

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