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Rethinking the four year degree

May 12, 2018

There’s a head of steam building in Scotland to make it easier for school leavers to get an honours degree in three years.  The most recent intervention is the report of the Scottish Government’s 15-24 “Learner Journey” review, published last week (here). It argues that more school leavers with sufficient Advanced Highers gained in S6 should be starting in second year of a degree. The same argument was made by the newish Commissioner for Fair Access in January (here).

A conversation on these lines has been going on for years. What’s new (I think) is that it is now being promoted directly by the government. The 15-24 review was  a process conducted by the Scottish Government, the report written by civil servants working to Ministers, the foreword signed by the Deputy First Minister.

The report recommends (emphasis added):

Recommendation 13
We will minimise unnecessary duplication at SCQF level 7. We will make maximum use of the flexibility of the four year degree to enable learners to move, where appropriate, from S5 to year 1 and, through greater recognition of Advanced Highers, from S6 to year 2 of a university degree programme.
There is a nod towards using financial mechanisms to achieve this (also new, I think).

In tackling issues of the variability of the offer to the young person from such initiatives it is for bodies like the SFC [the Scottish Funding Council] to ensure that their conditions of grant prioritise the learner and stipulate full recognition of prior attainment and maximise articulation, toward the achievement of a properly integrated system. (pp52-3)

This post reflects on this recommendation. It argues that there is an opportunity here to rethink the four degree in a more fundamental way.


The background

University entrance straight from school in Scotland has for many years been based largely on Highers, the exam taken at the end of 5th year.  There’s been a sixth year in the system for decades, but it’s only relatively recently that staying on into 6th year before going to university has become the dominant model (the review report includes some useful analysis of the figures on this). This shift has been accompanied by the introduction of Advanced Highers (AH), designed as a more demanding qualification to follow on from Highers. These are designated as SCQF Level 7, the same level of difficulty as the first year of a university degree. Some young people use 6th year to top-up their Highers, but an increasing number are using the year mainly to take the more advanced level of qualification.

The argument

The argument goes that Advanced Highers overlap with first year university courses and that for at least some young people entering first year with Advanced Highers, this means their first year at university is repetitive, and therefore wasted: this is the “unnecessary duplication” quoted above.

The report doesn’t tease out why this duplication is a problem. It could have mentioned sheer boredom and demotivation, bad in themselves. The extra cost of maintenance is an issue too, given Scottish students get very little grant support towards this, even the least well off. Either families have to find more, or students borrow more, or both, to fund the “duplicate” year at university. The extra year also means later entry into the labour market, an opportunity cost. It is relevant too to the debate about access: raising cost will tend to raise perceived risk, which some research suggests can play an important role for some in the decision to enter higher education.

It is absolutely right therefore, and welcome, that the report makes recommendations to deal with duplication between 6th year and first year at university. The rest of this post considers the potential here to think more about the structure of the four year degree, as a way of dealing with some practical issues the review’s recommendations raise.

The four year degree

Scotland’s four year degree is a “3+1” model. On many courses, three years’ study will get you an unclassified “ordinary” degree. Some courses are only offered to this level.  The fourth year is needed for “honours”, which  is classified (First, 2:1 etc).

This great bit of analysis by the office of the Commissioner for Fair Access shows that in Scotland ordinary degrees are disproportionately taken by those from the most disadvantaged postcodes. It argues that this is a problem for fair access – “access to what?” – and I agree.  Various things could account for this pattern. The important point here is that the three year degree exists.

English universities also award ordinary degrees, but generally not for a year’s less study: it is either (as in Scotland) the standard award in a few subjects, or an unclassified pass. A year less study might get you a non-degree award, such as an HE diploma, or a “foundation degree” (see below).

Who is being asked to change?

When reforms are being promoted, it is always worth looking at who is being asked to make the most change.

The 15-24 review does expect change on the part of schools and universities. The latter must work more closely with schools on the provision of AHs, so that they form a base from which second year entry is secure. Universities are also expected to be prepared to take more people into second year. The line between school and university will blur in the AH year: as the report notes, there are already examples of universities providing AH courses. All this may be very useful, especially in demystifying university for those who are uncertain.

The language is revealing, however. Entry is still into second year. The young people doing this will remain, in some way, anomalous to the main course design, which will continue to be for a 4-year through programme. Meantime, schools will go on teaching people highers and advanced highers, albeit in closer partnership (perhaps) with universities.

The largest change being demanded, really, is from the young people themselves. They are being asked to forego the experience of starting in a clear first year cohort, and instead to enter university as newcomers to established social circles, to learn the academic and social ropes as newbies among the more experienced, to be classified as unusual second years, not straightforward first years.

That the burden of change falls so much on young people bothers me. I read them as being fitted differently into a relatively unchanged system rather than the system being built round them.

It’s the whole conception of second year entry that we should pause on. It risks sending a signal to institutions and those who work in them that “proper” students continue to start in first year.  I think of two people I know who did unusual joint honours programmes, in two different universities, thirty years apart. In both cases the joint courses were formally in their university’s prospectus, but both had a terrible time feeling constantly marginal, fighting endlessly to get the teaching they had been promised, to be treated as well as other students on mainstream courses. My concern would be that if AH+3 people are conceived as second year entrants, they will suffer the same problem of being badged as essentially anomalous, their specific needs regarded as a problem to accommodate, with predictable effect, even if there are many more.

The Scottish two year degree?

It’s around 20 years since the UK government promoted the introduction of two-year foundation degrees in England, to address a concern about the absence of short-cycle higher education. The then Scottish Executive declined to do the the same. HNDs being well-established as a two-year HE qualification meant there was not the same perception of a gap in provision here, and there was minimal pressure from within Scottish educational circles, whose members were (and are) more likely to point out that in European terms a three year degree is already unusually short.

Second year entry with AHs means that a school-leaver can obtain an unclassified ordinary degree in Scotland after two years of university. That looks a lot like a foundation degree. This is already possible for the very small number entering second year with AHs, so this is not an absolutely new thing. It is simply that the more the system is re-designed to make second year entry from school a common way in, the more likely it is that it will be combined with an ordinary degree to make the two year degree a reality.

Thus one observation about promoting second year entry into an unreformed Scottish degree structure is that it also gives a push to the two-years-from-school degree. The emphasis on second year entry being for those who do particularly well at AH may mean that the system architects assume that those who will use this route are unlikely also to be those who will choose to exit with an ordinary degree. Well, maybe, but that would overlook how users often shape systems in unpredicted ways.

Two years from school to get an ordinary degree might of course be a useful addition to the choices available, or it might be an unhelpful complication when we already have HNDs.  It would definitely be better emerging as a conscious outcome than an unintended consequence.

Rethinking the four year degree

There’s another way of thinking about this.

South of the border, some universities, particularly some of the most selective, are moving towards offering an additional foundation year for students identified as having potential but whose school results leave them likely to be disadvantaged in first year. That’s a 1+3 model.

Quite separately, one of the most persuasive defences of the four year degree (I think) is that it allows students to try a range of subjects in their first year: the breadth and then depth argument.

So rather than thinking of the 4 year degree as a 3+1 model, why not rethink it as 1+3? A multi-subject foundation year, and then a three year degree course to honours. We could allow (and fund) entry to the foundation year as long as the student is not repeating subjects they have done at AH (maybe even if they are, trusting institutions only to admit people in such cases for whom they judge it makes sense). The foundation year would be a time to try things you couldn’t do at school for whatever reason (timetabling, staffing) or to make the shift in level for those who had mainly done highers in 6th year, or who left after 5th year (more on that group below).

Students entering into the honours degree stage with AHs would then be entering into first year of a three year course. They would still be joining an established group (though see below), but everyone would be on this course for the first time. I think the psychology of that would help new arrivals, and be usefully absorbed by institutions.

Also, even better, the foundation year could be seen as so distinct from the honours course that you might do that at one university (maybe one that lets you live at home, especially if you are only 17) and then move to start (in first year) at another. Some European continental systems operate a bit like this: start local, move further later. The admissions arrangements for this under the current system look at first sight a nightmare (ideally, we wouldn’t make people go through UCAS two years in a row) but that feels like the wrong reason not to consider it.

In many ways, this just takes the logic of a more fused 6th year/university provision a step further. It repositions the current university first year as something even more analogous with doing AHs in 6th year. Whether you stay at school or go on to a foundation year at university would depend on whether you were ready to move away, whether you wanted out of your school, or to stay longer somewhere familiar, what subjects you could do in each case …  Whether you did both would depend on how the level and scope of your 6th year study meshed with your university plans. The seeds of such thinking are already there in the 15-24 report, this just pushes the logic.

In passing, this model also eliminates the possibility of introducing the Scottish two year degree from school by accident, because there is no early exit point with an unclassified degree-level qualification, without a  creating a new one by design.

Of course, this may all be a completely daft way of looking at it. But as an option which forces more of the burden of change more clearly onto the structure of provision rather than the individuals taking part, I think it deserves attention. On this model, everyone still gets to be a proper first year. Sometimes twice.

Entry from 5th year

The other part of the report’s recommendation is to throw into reverse the drift towards entry after 6th year and encourage more  young people to skip 6th year and enter university straight from fifth year, as was more common in the past.

I have my doubts about that, unless the current first year is reconceived as a more localised foundation year, aimed more consciously at younger students living at home. The report notes that it is parents who are most wary about the idea of reverting to young people staring university after only 12 years at school, when they may be as young as 16, and rarely more than 17. Parents may have noticed that contemporary university culture doesn’t always look that accommodating for the under 18s, not least for young women. It is very good the Scottish government is supporting a project to “tackle lad culture” in order to reduce sexual harrassment and assault on campus.  But until the results of that are clear, people might be forgiven for caution about the age at which young people start university, especially as more than a local commuter.

I’d be curious to know too how the student body has changed over recent years. There are many more overseas students and taught post-graduates, and more rUK students who tend to arrive aged 18 or 19. My guess is that 16 and 17 year olds might feel much more in a minority on campus now than 20 or 30 years ago.

As an alternative solution to the overlap problem, I am therefore sceptical about the return of “fast tracking” many people from fifth year into the first year of a four year honours degree. The age issue might matter less though if you are treating commuting to a university foundation year as an alternative to attending school. That would be another reason to offer a 1+3 model.

Side issue: Funding 6th year vs HNC vs FE

The 15-24 report explains that the SCQF level (a difficulty measure) and the amount of credit (a volume of work measure) are the same for 3 AHs as for at least some HNCs: both are designated as level 7, with 96 credit points. First year at university is also counted as level 7, but expects more volume, normally 120 credits.

Funding varies between HN students and AH ones, and between AH students in school and in college, depending on age.  The student funding review which reported last November only offered a partial answer to this. The government response to that may have been deferred until this review reported. But there’s an obvious question about consistency here, the more first year university and 6th year in school blurs, whether or not there is any fundamental change is made to how 4 year degrees are structured.


This is a thought experiment, that wonders about the benefits of rethinking the Scottish honours degree as a 1+3 structure rather than 3+1.  Those who run the system may quickly find all sorts of problems with doing that. But it at least addresses the extent to which the burden of change otherwise feels to this reader to fall more on young people than system providers, looks at first sight a way to reinforce flexibility around points of entry and to make meshing the final year of school and first year of university easier.


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