Alan Hammond
Alan Hammond

Four-year degree is an incredibly misguided idea

Here’s an idea. We have a problem with too many students dropping out of their degree courses — so let’s make degrees longer! Why would anyone think that would cut the dropout rate?

I guess it doesn’t rate up there with, “ask not what your country can do for you…” but my new favourite quote comes from a Business Day editorial about Alec Erwin.

“If it wasn’t so misguided there’d be something almost touching about Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin’s vision for a vastly expanded state-owned industrial empire,” Business Day said on the 16th of May.

Well it’s not the most misguided initiative that a minister has come up with recently. Education Minister Naledi Pandor has asked the Council for Higher Education to investigate the possibility of increasing university degree courses from three years to four!

I would have thought that the head of a national department which is primarily engaged in policy planning could come up with some better ideas than that.

Students are struggling to complete degrees, so let’s make it longer and therefore harder for them to complete! The logic escapes me.

One of the problems Pandor highlights is that students do not have a well rounded educational background. Well,not if they went to the schools that Minister Naledi Pandor is responsible for they don’t!

The problem is the school education and you don’t fix that by tampering with the university education.

There are many problems with our higher education system. One of the most serious is the very high number of students who start a degree programme and drop out before completing.

Unfortunately, conventional wisdom has it that if you complete two years of a university degree and then drop out, your time has been wasted. You are considered a failure and your academic record is no better than when you completed matric.

I have to challenge the conventional wisdom. Who says that two years of study equals nothing but three years of study equals a graduate who can now command a high salary in the workplace? Did something miraculous happen in third year? Of course not.

Research has shown that the most common reason for student’s dropping out is financial. They either can’t afford to pay for their tuition and upkeep — or they have to get a job to support their family.

So here’s a better idea — let’s make the third year of a university degree free. The government will cover the student fees of all students who have successfully completed the first two years.

How are we going to fund this? Simple. We borrow the money. I’m sure Trevor Manuel will agree because the growth report that he released this week includes a number of good ideas for supporting growth (as reported by the Business Times). One is to “improve the quality and output of skills, and commit more resource to secondary and tertiary education”.

Because it isn’t really expenditure, its investment in one of our abundant raw material — brain power. With China seeing more than one million graduates a year there’s no way we can keep up with the modern world if we don’t increase our output of skilled citizens.

It all comes down to whether education is a personal or societal issue. If the degree predominantly supports the individual then they should pay for it. However, if society as a whole will benefit, then society should pay.

The neat trick to the free third year offer is that there could be some form of working commitment attached. If you choose to have the government fund your third year of engineering you will agree to work for one year as an engineer at a municipality somewhere. This solves the skills shortage and graduate unemployment problems at a stroke. And those who are planning to shoot off to Dubai to start earning dollars as soon as they graduate can choose to pay for the third year themselves.

There’s little chance of my idea being accepted as national policy — as brilliant as it is! So here’s something a little less radical. Students enter university for a degree programme which is made up of three parts.

Those who successfully complete one year of university study can either graduate with a certificate qualification, or continue studying. Those who successfully complete the second year can graduate with a diploma qualification, or continue studying. Finish three years successfully and you get the full degree.

This makes full use of our resources (people resources that is) and avoids the “all or nothing” mentality that prevails at the moment.

There’s no reason why universities shouldn’t support it as they retain full control over their academic programmes and standards. They don’t even have to go to the trouble of ensuring that what they teach students is what is going to help them get a job in the future.

The idea is hardly radical. It’s how the national qualifications framework (NQF) operates. The NQF is intended to support and develop our people — including those who are currently disposed of skills so is something that everyone in our country should support.

Unfortunately, the universities major interest is in supporting and developing their academic staff, so I’m not holding my breath while I wait to hear if they are going to implement this idea either!

But the success stories are there. Studies on the economic success of Ireland over the last two decades have identified two key elements. They targeted post-school, sub-degree qualifications. The kind of qualification technikons would have delivered if they were still around.

The second key element of their strategy? These qualifications were much cheaper than full degrees.

This strategy of universities offering certificates, diplomas and degrees would meet these national needs — more qualified people, at a lower cost.

So if the universities aren’t prepared to give our society what it needs why should we continue to support them with our tax rands?