There’s nothing wrong with a traditional 3-4-year undergraduate university degree – or is there?

Posted: 11/12/2020

Well, it could always be improved, particularly if we are after those T-shaped graduates with both depth of knowledge and breadth of experience. We could insist on work integrated learning in every degree, maybe even go as far as the sandwich degrees that are more common in the UK.

We could certainly insist on an international experience, at least in a post-COVID world, or at its minimum a study tour, but even better an immersive overseas semester. And we could insist on compulsory breadth in every degree – despite inevitable protests a bit of science or coding isn’t going to harm an arts student, in the same way that a bit of poetry or marketing won’t hurt a STEM student.

But, as I say, there is nothing wrong with a traditional 3-4-year undergraduate university degree.

Unless, of course, your 35 or 40 and wanting to advance your career. Or you want to change direction in your career. Or you have been displaced by societal change (or COVID) and want to restart on a new career path.

With debts, family commitments and responsibilities, the thought of taking 3 or 4 years to go back to university is simply unrealistic. And for those already in a job, the prospect of part-time study at an undergraduate level is just absurd. One subject at a time in a university offering only semesters won’t get you anywhere near finished in 10 years. Even if your university of choice offers trimesters, you’re still going to struggle to finish.

There has to be another option. The answer, in my opinion, has to be the 12-month degree. Before you shout this down, let’s think about the rationale.

Many school leavers will argue that they arrive at university with an existing breadth of knowledge and experience. We know the vast majority don’t. So, we structure our undergraduate studies to be about growing up, making friends, developing professional networks, coming of age, developing softer employability skills, gaining life experience, and getting an in-depth knowledge in a chosen field. Our degrees have electives, multiple majors, group activities, field trips, etc., all designed to provide an overall maturing experience for the school leaver.

If I’m 40, I already have most of that. I have work experience, I can work in teams, and I have a professional network and a friendship network. I’ve been overseas. I have a breadth of knowledge. What I want now is the skills and depth of knowledge in my newly chosen area – and only that.

I’m prepared to take a year off, but not for three years. I want to study a traditional 1st year of my chosen subject in Trimester 1; 2nd year in Trimester 2; and 3rd year in Trimester 3.

Now I appreciate this is not appropriate for every degree and we are not likely to see options like this in Medicine, or Pharmacy, or any of these profession-based programs. But it would work perfectly well for disciplines across Arts, Business, Social Sciences, and even many areas of the Sciences.

I should declare that I had some experience in this space many years ago. I dropped out of university having completed two-thirds of an undergraduate degree and made a successful career for myself. Many years later, I returned and took a year off to complete my degree. I studied a full major in Public Policy in one year, by completing the first year, second year and third year topics all in the one year. It was an immersive experience in which I excelled. I loved it, and it drove the career change I was looking for. I was lucky because I had that two years up my sleeve, but I didn’t need it to be successful in Public Policy.

Now I don’t know what we will call these programs, and it will certainly take some rethinking from regulators and providers, but we should be having the discussion. The government and many universities continue to push short courses and micro-credentials, and these are valuable. But this is really the step between those short courses and the full degree and is not there for everyone. Admissions should be limited and entry not available to school leavers.

As universities continue to increase their portfolio of offerings, in my opinion, there is a place for the 1-year degree in that portfolio.