Students enrolling on a university course in September can graduate in just two years after MPs backed new legislation for accelerated degrees.
Ministers say the move will save undergraduates condensing a three-year degree as much as £5,500 in tuition fees and will slash a year’s living costs from their debt burden.
But the Universities and College Union (UCU) told HuffPost UK the shorter degrees would “quickly become devalued” without fresh regulation and the shake-up risked “undermining the international reputation of our higher education sector”.
The proposals by the Department for Education were given the green light in the Commons on Tuesday night and will now go before the House of Lords for approval.
The government hopes that, as well as saving money, the shorter degrees will encourage under-represented groups, such as single parents, and mature students to up-skill or switch career.
Institutions delivering the degrees, however, will be allowed to charge up to 20% more in tuition fees to pay for admin and staff required to teach over the summer.
Accelerated degrees will offer the same level qualification as a traditional three-year course, but students will be expected to squeeze 30 weeks of teaching time into two years, with 45 weeks of teaching.
Universities minister Chris Skidmore said: “The passing of this legislation is one of the great modern-day milestones for students and breaks the mould of a one-size-fits all system for people wanting to study in higher education.
“For thousands of future students wanting a faster pace of learning and a faster route into the workplace at a lower overall cost, two-year degrees will transform their choices.”
But Labour’s Gordon Marsden, shadow universities minister, said the government had pressed ahead with the changes despite “very serious questions about access for disadvantaged students, workload for university staff and maintaining the quality of university education”.
Matt Waddup, head of policy for the UCU, also voiced his concerns about potential fraud in the system.
It comes after a BBC Panorama programme secretly filmed an education agent offering to get bogus students admitted into a government-approved private college for a £200 fee – something that would allow fake students to apply for student loans.
Waddup said: “This is not about increasing real choice for students, it is about allowing for-profit companies access to public money through the student loans system.
“Without proper safeguards, accelerated degrees will quickly become devalued, but the government shows no signs that it understands this. Instead of gimmicks which risk undermining the international reputation of our higher education sector, the government should focus on fixing the underlying problems with our current finance system which piles huge debts on students.”