The two-year degree shows education has become just another commodity
The two-year degree is back. The idea of increased flexibility in higher education is, in the broadest sense, a good one. But it is a sign of how captured we have been by market-centric thinking that “flexibility”, to this government, is manifested as “squeeze the same amount into a shorter period of time to maximise your financial returns later”. The sector has undergone a “catastrophe” as part-time student numbers have collapsed; that the government’s response is a degree format the polar opposite of part-time – and to charge £2,000 extra for the privilege – is indicative of its approach to governance in general.
For most demographics whose access to higher education is restricted, condensing the course doesn’t address the barriers they’re facing. If you’re balancing employment and childcare with a full-time education, especially if you’re relying on sketchy public transport infrastructure, it’s unrealistic to squeeze any more into your schedule. Many universities currently structure their courses around the reality that many students work, at least part-time, while studying. None of this is to mention those with disabilities who may face additional barriers to access.
There are no doubt some – the independently wealthy, for example – who may benefit, but it seems perverse that these people should be the focus of a major policy change. Once again we seem to be seeing policy as a function of the education minister’s pet project rather than the sector’s needs. Troublingly, we seem to have fully accepted the shift from education as a social good to a product sold to students on grounds of higher earnings in the jobs market.
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Often, the grand promises of access to employment don’t hold up. The labour market has been increasingly casualised and “hollowed out”, with a gap emerging between the skilled and “unskilled” (or those whose skills are less valued). Progression through the ranks is vanishing, with a degree becoming a requirement for all sorts of jobs beyond simply those with high wages. A study from the Resolution Foundation found that, among those who were low paid in 2001, only one in four had progressed from that wage bracket 10 years later. Average graduate earnings can seem higher because average non-graduate earnings are so low.

Graduate averages, meanwhile, can be skewed by high wages at the very top of the ladder. “Median starting salaries” that approach the £30,000 mark are, frankly, marketing figures: they only take in graduates who got graduate jobs directly related to their degree. They conveniently exclude those who have not been able to find employment after graduating, nor the one-third of all graduates who are in low-paid employment six months after graduating.
Even beyond the gap between the promise and reality, though, lies a philosophical flaw with the current approach. Education should be seen as a social and personal good in itself. What of the factory worker who wants to learn about economics, not because she wants to become a banker but because she wants to understand the chancellor’s autumn statement? What of the fruit picker who wants to study literature because of a love of language and poetry?
What does it say when a society views any aspirations that can’t be expressed in financial terms as luxuries reserved for the rich?

The two-year degree, in and of itself, is neither a good nor a bad thing. For some people it will be a positive, for the majority of others an irrelevance. What is troubling is what it represents about how Britain’s political establishment sees education. It fits well into the reductive free-market philosophy, where every aspect of life can be sold as a commodity. A government that sees the price of everything and the value of nothing will inevitably be drawn to idea of squeezing maximum output into minimum time.
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A government that really wanted to make higher education more flexible, open and accessible would be exploring options that made sense for single parents and working-class people. More part-time degrees, more graduate qualifications, modules that you could take without having to commit to a whole degree, a commitment to learning that people could use at the pace appropriate to them.

It would also help ensure that work was decent at all levels – rather than taking it as read that low pay and miserable conditions are all you can expect without a degree – and that education wasn’t just an expensive commodity you bought on tick as a way of clawing an advantage in an ever more cut-throat job market.
I see no evidence, though, that this government thinks the choice between being stuck in a low-wage hellscape or taking on thousands of pounds in debt to play a roulette wheel with better odds is a bad thing. The days of education policies that address none of the problems with education are far from over.
• Phil McDuff is a writer on economics and social policy