Four years

My kids have grown up listening to me talk about universities, degrees, subject specialisms, education, learning, online learning, MOOCs, open-access education, and many many more topics talked about across the dinner table.

My wife is an early-years teacher so education and learning of all ages is always being talked about, and they’re interested because, well, they’re going through it and might be thinking ahead to try and answer the question ‘what do you want to do’?

My eldest has chosen his topics for GCSEs. Year 9 and turning 14 years old soon. His mind is looking towards the future, and higher study and university is on the horizon. Even at 14 years old.

The biggest question I’ve never really been able to answer is ‘why does it take four years?’ I’ve used everything in my arsenal to answer this, but I really don’t have an answer any more that I truly believe. I’ve started to ask myself, especially on the back of the kind of work I’ve been doing with online and distance learning, micro-credentials, block teaching, hybrid, social learning, etc where it is clear it doesn’t have to take this long, or indeed doesn’t have to fit the (medieval, according to the article below) archaic model for terms and semesters:

Colleges and universities should reconsider the need to collect credits beyond the major and general education requirements, particularly for vocationally focused degrees. This would eliminate approximately one year of required instruction, with all its cost in time and resources.

We are now into the sixth year of a decline in [US] undergraduate enrollments, largely due to a simple shortage in this generation of 18-to-22-year-olds. Since the spring of 2020, the college student population has shrunk by 1.3 million. In January, Pennsylvania’s new governor, Josh Shapiro, signed an executive order eliminating the requirement of a college degree for 65,000 state jobs. It’s a move that will probably be followed by governors in more states facing tight labor markets. Dropping back to a three-year degree would be a recruitment attraction for students concerned about the costs of tuition, especially if four-year degrees increasingly cease to guarantee middle-class employment.

Even while it has kept the medieval costumes and Latin diplomas at graduation, higher education has always responded to new situations and new environments. The time has come for new ways of thinking about the four-year straitjacket. There will always be a place for university education in the classical mode—a place for Latin, history and the liberal arts. But there should also be a practical shape to education within the university, one that will meet the diversifying needs of a rapidly changing nation.

Feb 2, 2023 – ‘College Doesn’t Need to Take Four Years’ by Scot Wyatt and Allen Guelzo

I’d go even further than this … if the focus for the degree classification is also modified, brought up to date, and the requirements for how the credits are earned/collected, then a degree would be more accessible, more attainable for many – online, short, cheap(er), and based in real-world requirements. By being shorter the degree would be easier to design around current employability and skills, and easier to update and maintain according to changes in the employment market, changes in skills employers need, etc.

Of course, this is a given, but perhaps it’s worth saying that there must not be a drop in quality for these new ‘degrees’. The academic rigour that goes into the materials does not change, nor does the required level of learning needed to attain the desired standards for assessments and certification. It just doesn’t need to be four years. Does it?

Could this finally be a time when assumptions of what a degree needs to be can make the leap from discussion to action?

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash