Universities have been given the go-ahead to charge up to 20% more a year for shorter degree courses under Government plans – but students will be left with a smaller overall bill.
Students opting for accelerated degrees – which typically last two years – will pay a fifth (£5,500) less on tuition fees compared with peers taking traditional three-year courses, the Department for Education (DfE) said.
It follows a consultation on the proposal to roll out shorter university courses, creating more choice and flexibility for people wanting to study in higher education, particularly mature students.
The shorter courses will meet the same quality assurance measures as standard degrees and will provide the same level of qualification.
For example, a two-year accelerated degree will condense three-year degrees with 30 weeks’ teaching into two years with 45 weeks’ teaching.
The new fee limits, set out in the Government’s response to the consultation published on Monday, will be subject to parliamentary approval.
Universities Minister Sam Gyimah said: “Accelerated degrees not only make it possible for the next generation of students to access higher education and the undeniable financial, academic and personal benefits it has to offer but drives the sector to offer dynamic choices that serve students’ needs.
“Providers will be able to tap into a new market of students, particularly mature students and those who commute, who were previously locked out of higher education.
“This provision creates a new arena of competition that delivers for students, taxpayers and employers.”
Concerns have been raised about the impact shorter courses could have on issues such as university staff contracts and research.
Students choosing accelerated courses have to work more intensively, while their holidays would be significantly shorter than on traditional degree programmes.
Chief executive of the Russell Group, which represents 24 UK universities, Dr Tim Bradshaw, said: “Greater choice for students is always good but I would caution ministers against ‘overpromising’.
“The Government’s own projection for the likely take-up of these degrees is modest and we actually hear many students calling for four-year degrees, for example, to spend a year on a work placement or studying abroad.
“I wouldn’t want disadvantaged students to rule out a traditional three-year course because they didn’t believe they could afford it.
“Upfront support with living costs is available and graduates repay their student loans based on their earnings.
“Doing a more compressed degree also reduces the opportunity for part-time work, potentially increasing short-term financial pressure.”
The Accelerated Degrees Government consultation, which closed in February, said: “Our aspiration is for the number of students enrolled on accelerated degree courses to build over the next decade to around 5% of the total undergraduate population, and for an additional 100,000 students to have studied on this basis over that period.”
Matt Waddup, head of policy and campaigns at the University and College Union, said: “This is not about increasing real choice for students, it about allowing for-profit companies to access more public cash through the student loans system.
“Accelerated degrees will quickly become devalued but the government shows no signs that it understands this.
“Instead of gimmicks which risk undermining the international reputation of our higher education sector, the Government should focus on fixing the underlying problems with our current student finance system, which piles debts on students.”