Universities are to offer new two-year "compressed" degrees as part of an attempt to bolster student numbers in higher education.

The new format is to be tested at five universities, including Staffordshire, from September ahead of a possible national roll-out.

The accelerated degree, which involves students working through the summer vacation, was greeted with caution by a Midland university which said it would "fundamentally change" the education system and risked further undermining Britain's academic reputation.

But it was welcomed by an employers' group for providing more choice for students.

The Government wants universities to be more flexible in a bid to achieve its target of getting half of all 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education.

It is hoped a two-year intense programme will appeal to students put off by the tripling of tuition fees, which will rise to #3,000, from this September.

Earlier this year UCAS said student applications nationally were down, for the first time in six years, by 16,000 (3.4 per cent) compared with 2005.

Birmingham University recorded a 6.3 per cent fall and Aston University an 8.2 per cent decrease in their 2006 intake.

Critics said the rise in tuition fees had put people off higher education.

Announcing the new initiative during a visit to Coventry yesterday, Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said he believed the shorter study regime would offer flexibility and put student choice at the forefront.

Speaking at the Higher Education Funding Council conference at The University of Warwick, he said: "I am interested in a two-year compressed degree honours programme. We would need to ensure the competencies and skills are the same but I believe if we can get this right, two-year degree courses will offer an opportunity for people who are not able to take three years out.

"We are awaiting with interest the outcome of these pilots to see what lessons we can learn from it."

Staffordshire University will offer the new degrees in English and philosophy.

The compressed degrees come in the wake of vocational foundation degrees introduced in 2001 to widen access to higher education.

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Foundation degrees are the equivalent of two years of an honours degree and are drawn up together with employers.

The new two-year compressed degree will be radically different in that it gives students a full honours, provided they survive the intense study period.

Peter Dunn, of Warwick University, said: "You have to ask at a time when we are celebrating the fact that British universities are world-class, because they are good at research, whether that will be maintained if lecturers are teaching all the time.

"It would fundamentally change the nature of British universities and the research they can do. Also, we have other Europeans a bit scathing of British degrees because they are three years and not four like theirs."

But John Phillips, regional director of the Institute of Directors, welcomed the new option, saying: "I think it is great because it is giving more choice to the customer who in this case is the student."

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