St Andrews University chief warns against Tory plans to cut Scottish degrees to three years

Dame Sally Mapstone said Scotland’s four-year degrees offer ‘wonderful advantages’

This article contains affiliate links. We may earn a small commission on items purchased through this article, but that does not affect our editorial judgement.

The principal of St Andrews University has passionately defended Scottish degrees as she warned against Tory proposals to cut them down to three years.

Dame Sally Mapstone said the nation’s oldest university was “very strongly wedded to the advantages of the four-year degree”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

She said she had “entirely changed” her view on the issue since she became principal and vice-chancellor of the university in 2016.

University Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Sally Mapstone leading the academic procession.University Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Sally Mapstone leading the academic procession.
University Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Sally Mapstone leading the academic procession.

Scottish Conservative education spokesman Stephen Kerr said in April that shortening degree-lengths, particularly in arts and humanities, would “do wonders for opening up access”.

The party argued that moving to three-year degrees, which would align Scottish universities with the rest of the UK, would also help cut student debt and stabilise finances in the higher education sector.

However, Dame Sally said she had since been involved in correspondence with the Scottish Conservatives, and was “pleased” the party had “retrenched” its position, and was now only proposing three-year degrees “in some cases”.

The principal was speaking at St Andrews University’s annual public meeting on Saturday, after a series of student graduation ceremonies at the historic institution last week.

She also used the appearance to appeal to the University and College Union (UCU) to accept an offer from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association (UCEA) to enter an independent process to consider the financial outlook for the sector.

The proposal comes amid an ongoing marking and assessment boycott by university staff across the UK.

At the meeting, Dame Sally was asked about the advantages of moving to three-year degrees.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

She said: “When I first came here I was asking very similar questions, but I have entirely changed my view on this matter.

"Firstly of course the great advantage of the Scottish four-year undergraduate degree is that, quite simply, it enables students to study more than one subject.

"And we have to remember that many of our Scottish students in particular come to us when they are 17, a little under 18. That is quite an age to actually know what you want to study at university.

"The wonderful advantage of the sub-honours and honours system is that it enables you to try things out, to study a range of subjects in your first and second years, and then take on subjects with a very strong view of what you really want to study.”

Dame Sally, who is the outgoing convener of Universities Scotland and will become the next president of Universities UK in August, added that four-year degrees were beneficial to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"It gives them the time to bed themselves in, to upskill where they need to, to get a sense of the place and really develop themselves as scholars and as human beings,” she said.

The principal said four-year degrees were the "international norm”, and make Scotland “very attractive” to students from overseas.

"So we are very strongly wedded to the advantages of the four-year degree,” she said.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Dame Sally said she was “conscious” that the Scottish Conservatives had “recently been touting” the position that a three-year degree would be beneficial in Scotland.

"We have been engaging with them, important correspondence with them, and I’m pleased to say that in the most recent statements by Douglas Ross they have retrenched their statement to say they think three-year degrees ‘in some cases’ in Scotland might be an advantage,” she said.

The Scotsman contacted the Scottish Conservatives for comment on Sunday.

Dame Sally was also asked at the public meeting about the ongoing assessment and marking boycott by UCU members amid a dispute over pay.

Many universities have been accused of responding to the industrial action by sacrificing standards to classify degrees without the usual level of scrutiny.

The St Andrews principal said she hoped progress could soon be made in the dispute, following a development at the end of last week.

"In the last 24 hours UCEA has addressed a particular issue which is often raised, and rightly in my view, by UCU in these discussions, which is that UCU will contest the question of affordability,” she said.

"UCEA has reached out to UCU and asked them to participate in a joint exercise, an independently-facilitated exercise, that would enable an appraisal of the financial situation in the sector as a whole.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"That, I think, is a very sensible initiative and I very much hope that the union will consider it and address it.”

Dame Sally took issue with claims the standard of degrees had fallen during the boycott.

"Quality really matters in the university, and we take very seriously the fact that as far as we’re concerned, and as far as our independent assessors are concerned, we have delivered a mitigation to the marking and assessment boycott where it has had an effect, that has ensured that we congratulated all our students who can be classified with a fully classified degree,” she said.

Some students had received interim classifications but they were still classifications, the principal insisted, before adding: "We are entirely sure that what we are doing is bona fide.”

After a week of graduations, Dame Sally said: "I’ve met hundreds of people in the course of this week, students and parents and the like, and nobody has raised the question of quality with me.

"One or two people have asked when final marks going to come through, but nobody, not a single person, has raised a concern about quality."



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.