Friday, September 25, 2015

Is Richard Branson right that "university course lengths should be halved"?

When Richard Branson says something - it is noticed. As one of the most successful entrepreneurs and businessmen in the world he has plenty to say, and people (including me) listen. On 8th September last, Branson blogged about "Why university course lengths should be halved". Branson did not go to college, but nevertheless I was curious about what he had to say.

Image Source: Wikipedia.
Richard Branson says that the "length of time it takes to complete a degree is far too long to be practical for the modern world" and that many students are "attending a course with no real life benefits". While I would emphatically disagree with his second point, I'm not so sure I would disagree too much about the first.  

I attended a four-year honours science degree in Trinity. The schedule was quite full and the weekly timetable was hectic. Some of the students I have today will have days in their timetables where they have no classes or at most - very few. Many regard such gaps in their timetable as a "day off" rather that a study day. Even though they are full time students, many will also have part-time jobs that are facilitated by gaps in the timetable. If I was pressed on shortening a four year degree in to three or even two years - I'd have to say that it could easily be done. In fact my own College is now offering a two year full time BA Hons in HRM Strategy and Practice - clearly there is a demand for this. But there is more to going to College than attending classes.

Would I shorten degree courses? First I've got to consider students when they come into College first. Most students on full time programmes come straight from school and are not ready for the "real world" just yet. Over their time in College, many do gather "real life benefits". Can the average student get the benefits of a degree in half the time? I'm not sure that such a drastic condensation of a course would work - fitting four years worth of classes into two would test the ability of even top students. Condensing four into three years - now that's worth considering. Some courses have work placements - NCI has an off-campus work placement module in the second semester of year 3, while I know other Colleges who have a full year "off" as work placement before graduating. An argument could be made to complete taught modules earlier and let the students out into the workplace earlier. 

Shortening courses will involve redesigning classes and study time - but Universities and Colleges are full of smart people who should have no trouble in coming up with a solution. Four years IS a long time to attend College - at the very least we should be able to come up with a package whereby students who want to (and are capable of) a fast-track through College can do so. 

Is Richard Branson right? Partly!


  1. Lots to discuss there, Eugene, but I'll just take up one particular point. Are 19 year-olds ready for the real world? If they are not it is an indictment on our second level education, but leaving that aside you can ask does college prepare them for the real world. I would suggest that it doesn't do it very well. The real world is where you learn about the real world. As I have suggested elsewhere, I think the best solution is to go back to work-based (apprentice style) learning. You learn about the real world and study more efficiently. An acceptable interim step that perhaps Branson would accept is one year in college to gain a few skills useful to employers and the rest of the degree to be taken part-time while in work. (Of course, because of the work it wouldn't be any shorter).

  2. Work place learning makes perfect sense alright in all sorts of disciplines especially IT, not to mention all those professions that HE muscled in on, like actuarial maths. Current HE is way too homogeneous.

  3. Wake up people. College courses have gone from 35 weeks to 30. We now have semesters that are 12 weeks long with a 'co-op' education in the middle. Courses have gone from over 30 hours per week to 24-5 for engineering.
    That is Students do not know what is needed coming out of college now as they used and employers know it.Starting wages reflect this.

    As one industry contact said to me. If you want a well educated empty brain then hire a current university graduate.