Angela Rayner has poured scorn on Government plans to introduce £11,100-a-year tuition fees for more “accelerated” two-year degrees.
The Shadow Education Secretary said there was “no concrete evidence” the new shorter courses benefited students and dismissed the shake-up as “another plan to raise tuition fees”.
Ministers have announced students on the two-year intensive degrees will have to pay fees up to £11,100-a-year but insisted the changes will save students money overall.
The maximum per-year fee for a typical three-year course is around £9,250 for 2017/18. A student on a fast-track course would pay £22,200 in tuition fees, compared with £27,750 for a standard three-year degree.
Universities Minister Jo Johnson said this amounts to a saving of around 20% and the move could force universities to offer intense, fast-track courses that suit older students.
Angela Rayner MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, said: “It seems that every higher education policy from this government comes with another plan to raise tuition fees, with students on part time degrees now facing charges of over £11,000 a year.
“With universities facing uncertainty over Brexit, ministers must address concerns like the impact on staff workload before imposing more major changes.
“So far they have offered no concrete evidence that squeezing three years of learning into two will stem the huge drop in part-time students, or lead to better outcomes.”
Shorter degree courses have been mooted in the past, but only limited numbers have been on offer. According to Government analysis, around 2,500 undergraduates in England opt for accelerated degrees.
Tutors fear that shorter courses would hit staff contracts and research projects.
Students choosing accelerated courses have to work more intensively, while their holidays would be significantly shorter than on traditional degree programmes.
An amendment to the Higher Education Bill, allowing the Secretary of State to set higher fees for accelerated courses, was made earlier this year, and the Government will consult on the detail of how it will be implemented.
If approved by Parliament, the changes would apply to shorter courses starting from autumn 2019.
Johnson said: “For too long we have been stuck with a system that has increasingly focused on offering only one way of benefiting from higher education, via the classic three-year degree programme.
“The passage of the Higher Education and Research Act this year has finally enabled us to break the mould of this one-size-fits-all system so students have much more choice over how they learn.
“Many will want to stick with the classic three-year university experience, but for highly motivated students hungry for a faster pace of learning and a quicker route into or back into work, at lower overall cost, two-year degrees will be well worth considering.”
The proposals were met with a mixed response among university groups.
A spokesman for the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK universities, said: “I don’t think any university is necessarily ruling two-year courses out, but there are practical reasons why three-year programmes have generally been considered the most appropriate way to deliver courses at research-intensive institutions.
“Three-year courses provide opportunities to build the social and cultural capital of students beyond the remit of their degree programme. Summer is also traditionally a time when academics put a real focus on work with postgraduate students and move forwards with research.
“Ultimately universities need to have the freedom to deliver courses in the way which lets them provide students with the best possible learning experience.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Several universities have been offering two-year, fast-track degrees for a number of years, but demand has been limited under the current system.
“But if these proposals help encourage even more flexible modes of study, and meet the needs of a diverse range of students and employers, it is to be welcomed. Universities UK will respond to the consultation.
“The priority is ensuring that each student is given good advice and information so that they can choose the course and university that is right for them.
“While the three-year undergraduate degree on campus will remain the preferred option for many students, accelerated degrees could also meet the needs of many students and their families.”