The four-year degree is often talked about, even within Scotland, as if it is some sort of educational anomaly; an exception to the norm.
Another image problem the four-year degree faces is the idea that it is some sort of rigid structure that all students must pass through. Neither is the case. The four-year degree offers students a flexible spine of different entry and exit points.
Already, two in every ten entrants from within the UK opt to start their Scottish degrees at years two or three of their chosen course. Within Scotland, we know that one in ten students articulate onto a degree programme with advanced standing into the second or third year of a degree, having first gained a Higher National qualification.
This is already a fairly solid basis of flexibility but university principals have said they are open to increasing this further and putting a wider range of options out there to suit the differing needs of students. Some universities offer students accelerated degree programmes, while some use the opportunity of the breadth of the four-years to offer students industry-placements or greater choice on language or study abroad.
The University of Dundee has just recently announced a range of three-year degrees from 2012 onwards. Flexibility is to be favoured. It most certainly would not be a step in the right direction to move wholesale from a flexible four-year degree to a one-size-fits-all three-year degree. There are 215,000 students studying in Scotland and they are all highly individual in how they want and need to learn.
Universities are committed to getting it right for every learner and that means a range of options, but for many that does still mean the breadth and quality that the four-year degree offers.
Far from being the exception, four-year degrees are commonplace internationally. Scottish universities have an established synergy with degree-structures in Asia and North America, and Scotland’s four-year degree fits with something called the Bologna process, which is a conscious move within the EU to make degrees more comparable to help student mobility across international borders.
The four-year degree is also a significant factor in Scottish universities’ appeal to international students and a reason why Scotland benefits from such cosmopolitan student bodies.
There is a lot to be proud of in the four-year degree and perhaps that is the reason it has such a long history. It should have an equally long future. But that future will be a flexible one.
Simon Jennings is deputy director of Universities Scotland, the umbrella body for higher education institutions across the country.