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Degrees and the length of courses

THE four-year Scottish degree is well-respected internationally for the broad-based education it provides.

Students typically take a range of subjects in their first year, sometimes in areas of study that are unrelated to their degree title, and specialise in their final two years. The four-year degree is widely replicated worldwide, has stood generations of Scottish students in good stead and continues to do so.

Nevertheless, the suggestion by economist Jeremy Peat that Scottish universities should be flexible enough to offer three-year alternatives alongside the four-year standard degree, in order to save the taxpayer money, is a thoughtful contribution to the debate that deserves to be given proper consideration. It seems entirely feasible that well-motivated students could complete their studies within three years by taking shorter holidays and putting in more hours of study.

Already, bright Scottish pupils who take Advanced Highers in sixth year, and do well, can go straight into the second year of a four-year degree. A separate three-year degree would allow those with standard Highers to opt for a shorter period of university study.

From the point of view of students, this has obvious attractions. Scottish students may not have to pay tuition fees, but they still typically leave university burdened with significant debt from taking out student loans. Less time spent studying means less debt and an earlier chance to start earning money on the graduate jobs market. Meanwhile, for students from the rest of the UK who might like to come to Scotland but must pay tuition fees, a three-year degree could make attending a Scottish university a cheaper proposition.

There is a precedent for a shorter degree. Dundee University started offering one in 2011, with the blessing of Education Minister Michael Russell, who has made clear he is relaxed about the idea of students being offered a choice of shorter and longer degrees. Scottish universities in general have shown little enthusiasm at the prospect of losing up to a year's funding for each student opting for shorter programmes of study, but if those institutions who have dipped their toe in the water like Dundee find that three-year degrees are popular and oversubscribed, the market may drive greater provision of such courses.

How employers regarded such degrees would have a bearing on their take-up and the danger would be a narrowing of students' education. The breadth of a Scottish university degree through the four-year structure being one of its great strengths, any shortening of it should be considered with the greatest care. Mr Peat is right that the future burden of higher education on the public purse must be addressed, but maintaining the worldwide reputation of a Scottish university education is equally important. No-one would wish to see that inadvertently eroded by a misguided attempt at cost-cutting. To replace the existing degree with a shorter version would be a step too far, but the notion of offering students choice merits examination.

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