For The Independent
Harvard and the Case For 4
Professor of Economics, Warwick University
Jacob Wertheim Fellow, Harvard University
It is time for a change. England’s universities should move away
from three-year degrees. We ought to go to four years – emulating
the sensible Scots and Americans.
The first reason for switching to 4-year degrees is a cheery one.
Statistically, my funeral is likely to be on July 14 in the year 2034
(everyone welcome). Britons today are living much longer; therefore
it pays them to invest more in education. In 1900, the entire allotted
span of a male in Great Britain averaged 45 years. Now it nudges
80. Fairly obviously, it does not make sense for the length of our
tertiary education to stay constant as longevity shoots up.
The second reason for 4-year degrees is philosophical. Students
need to know about Socrates, Spearman, Samuelson and Skinner.
Yet British universities are producing students who are narrowly
trained by the standards of a genuinely liberal education. There is
lots to be said for a politics degree, for instance, but mabye even
more for one that is mixed with other subjects (like the famous PPE
design at Oxford). When teaching in America years ago, I still
remember the student whom I asked: ‘what other courses are you
taking this semester apart from mine on Macroeconomics?’
‘Shakespeare and Astrophysics’ came the answer.
Perhaps because this is being written on a damp afternoon in the
centre of Cambridge Massachusetts, I am particularly on the side of
John Henry Newman. His book The Idea of a University says pithily:
"If a student's reading is confined simply to one subject, however
such division of labour may favour the advancement of a particular
pursuit, it has a tendency to contract his mind."
The case for breadth makes intuitive sense. But our nation is not
practised at getting undergraduates
to be good at, and
knowledgeable about, a broad group of subjects. Briti