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Four-year degrees ruled out

Sir Ron Dearing's new higher education review will not consider an extra year of study, Nicholas Pyke discovers

Longer degrees have been ruled out by Sir Ron Dearing even before his inquiry into higher education gets under way later this month.

"We cannot afford four-year degrees as a matter of course," Sir Ron told the first sitting of the new Education and Employment Select Committee. This was one reason, he explained, for keeping the A-level as a tough academic course in his recent review of 16 to 19 education.

"It's only possible to have a credible three-year degree course in the European context if we have a high entry take-off point," he said."A-levels have been providing that."

Sir Ron's conclusion might prove embarrassing as his forthcoming review of higher education has not, in theory, begun its deliberations.

The Government, however, has already made clear its opposition to any further four-year degrees, which are so far only available in engineering and foreign languages on a widespread basis. Some four-year courses in physics, a subject which is expanding, have also been sanctioned.

Sir Ron's review has been without a committee of members or its official terms of reference, even though it was expected to get under way at the end of April. It promises to be on the same gargantuan scale as the 16 to 19 review.

He is expected to define the place and purpose of higher education and the extent to which it can make claims on the public purse. In particular, as Sir Ron has already indicated, he will have to define the respective roles of higher and further education.

He has already pointed to the vastly different scale of financial investment in the two sectors and has declared an interest in the extent to which FE is capable of delivering higher studies.

This difference in funding was identified as the key issue by Labour's maverick higher education spokesman, Jeff Rooker, before he was effectively sacked. FE students, he pointed out, should in equity receive grants. Labour has yet to produce its higher education policy paper.

The Government faces an ever increasing demand for post-school education. The proportion of school-leavers entering university has already reached close to one in three and this is in addition to the large numbers of mature students looking to higher education.

Yet the Government also desires public sector spending cuts. It has removed Pounds 100 million of capital funding from FE over the next three years, while higher education in England must grapple with a 30 per cent cut in capital funding this year alone.

The Government's intention is that the shortfall will be made up by the Private Finance Initiative, a scheme to encourage business and industry to invest in the public sector. However, little money has so far appeared.

Four-year degrees are considered particularly necessary for subjects like mathematics, chemistry and physics because academics claim that undergraduates are arriving with less mathematical knowledge than in previous years.

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