Oxbridge told to offer short and modular courses so adults have a chance to learn as they work

The Government wants Oxford and Cambridge and other elite universities to begin offering students short and modular courses, i has learned. 

Ministers have pushed forward the idea of short courses because they want people – particularly mature students – to have more flexibility about how they learn.  

Shorter courses would also provide a more affordable alternative to the traditional three year degree. 

However, the Government believes an unhealthy perception has taken root that these courses are not for certain types of institutions, such as Oxford, Cambridge and other Russell Group universities including Imperial College London and the London School of Economics. 

A source close to the Government told i: “Oxford should be embracing it and looking at it”. 

The source said that the courses are needed because people are less likely to stay in one career for the whole of their life, meaning there is a greater need for universities to provide “constant bolt-ons and add-ons” which can help individuals to learn new skills and “stay relevant”. Universities reshaping their provision would allow people to “complement and continue to build their career” well into later life. 

Shorter courses are also required so workers can keep pace with the breakneck pace of technological change, they said.

The source claimed that what a student learns at the beginning of a three year digital technology degree could be “largely eclipsed” by technological developments before the end of the course. 

To help deliver the change, the Government wants universities to be “embedding more and more with industry” so they understand what courses to offer. The source said such a move would be “very beneficial” for universities as well as individuals, because it would allow higher education institutions to open up new revenue streams. 

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Boris Johnson signalled his backing for shorter courses last year, when he announced a “lifetime skills guarantee”.  

Under plans unveiled in January 2021, people will get a “lifelong loan entitlement” from 2025, guaranteeing them finance for the equivalent of four years’ worth of post-18 education to use over their lifetime. 

Speaking to university heads earlier this month, the former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the loan entitlement would “make it easier for students to access courses and to study in a modular way, or to commit to blocks of study”. 

“They can fit learning around work, or their family or whatever personal circumstances they may have,” he said. “It is, in a sense, a season ticket to further and higher education that will last for many academic years.” 

Last month, universities and further education colleges were invited to bid for a share of a £2m fund to create new short courses across five subject areas; science, technology engineering and maths (Stem), healthcare, digital innovation, education, and “supporting Net Zero”.  

The courses – the first of which will be available from September 2022 – can be as short as six weeks or as long as a year if studied part-time. 

A spokesperson for Cambridge said the university had no plans to offer modular courses, but is already offering a wide range of short courses.

They said: “The University of Cambridge is committed to enabling lifelong learning, supporting professional development and offering the widest possible access for learners, in person and online.

“The University’s Institute of Continuing Education offers an extensive portfolio of world-leading short courses and award-bearing qualifications spanning the arts, sciences and professional disciplines, with a focus on open-entry flexible provision available to adults at all life stages. 

“And earlier this year, the University launched Cambridge Advance Online to offer a new range of short online courses for professionals. This new programme of interdisciplinary courses provides high quality education to graduate-level learners who wish to upskill and distinguish themselves in the post-pandemic job market.”

Oxford University was contacted for comment. 

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