THE future of Scotland's four-year degree has come under renewed pressure after a university said it would offer the qualification over just three years.

The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) has become the fourth institution in recent years to unveil a new "fast track" degree which aims to help students enter the workplace more quickly and reduce the costs of higher education.

Dundee University, Abertay University, in Dundee, and Queen Margaret University, in Edinburgh, have already launched three year degrees which run in tandem with the longer qualification.

A spokesman for UHI said the new three year geography degree course would include exactly the same content as conventional four-year studies, but with more working weeks in the second and third year to allowing students to graduate almost a year in front of their peers.

Professor Clive Mulholland, principal of UHI, said: "This new geography degree is an excellent example of our innovative approach to learning.

"Combining an accelerated model with a mix of teaching methods will allow students to have an engaging learning experience, embark on their chosen career more quickly and save money in the process."

Dr Michael Smith, geography programme leader, added: "Reports show an increasing number of pupils are taking up geography and that graduates have some of the highest employment rates across academic disciplines.

"Geographers have a range of transferable skills and are needed to address the environmental, economic and societal challenges we face."

In 2011, Dundee University become the first institution in Scotland to offer a three-year honours degree to students from Scotland and the rest of the UK. The institution argued the move significantly reduced the total cost of a degree once living costs such as accommodation are factored in.

In 2012, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, began offering a three-year business management honours degree and earlier this year Abertay University began offering "fast track" degrees in seven subjects.

Until recently, the four-year degree has been seen as the "gold standard" of Scottish higher education, but increasing pressure on public finances and growing student debt have seen the development of alternatives.

The new flexible degree was welcomed by UCU Scotland, which represents lecturers and support staff, but the organisation stressed the importance of the four year degree to Scottish higher education.

Mary Senior, UCU Scotland official said: "We welcome innovative and flexible approaches to learning that make higher education more accessible, but at the same time it is important that we don't lose the distinct value of the traditional four years honours degree and the educational development that it provides."

A spokesman for Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, said: "Scotland's internationally recognised four-year undergraduate degree provides a flexible structure for learners.

"Its flexibility already benefits a number of students such as those who pursue non-traditional entry routes into university which includes those who articulate from college with advanced standing.

"The development of an accelerated degree course by the University of the Highlands and Islands is one example of how Scotland's universities build on that flexibility to create learning opportunities which suit the circumstances of a broad range of students and respond to the needs of employers."

As well as being the university's first accelerated programme, the UHI course is also its first geography degree.

It will be delivered using a mix of face-to-face teaching and online materials designed to be viewed on a range of devices including smartphones, tablets, laptops, smart TVs and games consoles.

Students will also have the opportunity to go on field trips, including a visit to Europe and a weekend in the Cairngorms.