Why multiple degrees are like free sex (and dinosaurs)

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Author: Axel Aerden

At the EAIE Annual Conference 2014, I took part in a “presidential debate”. Unni Kvernhusvik Sagberg (University of Bergen) argued against joint degrees and I argued in favour. The debate was presided over by Annika Sundbäck-Lindroos (CIMO). Over the last two weeks, I have received dozens of e-mails about this debate. Those present want a summary; those not present want to know what the fuss is about. So here is my contribution in a nutshell.' 'Before you read on, two small remarks. If you are not familiar with joint programme terminology and the difference between a joint degree and a multiple degree, give the joint programme definitions at the ECApedia a quick glance. And when reading on, remember that in a presidential debate there is not supposed to be any grey. Only black and white. And what follows is, of course, the white.

Let me start by stating that multiple degrees are an artefact, a relic of the past, a dinosaur walking amongst us. I will present three reasons why joint degrees are superior and better fit for purpose. Joint degrees demonstrate responsibility and ownership; they favour institutional autonomy over the borders drawn up by national legislation; and they reinforce the credibility of higher education towards its stakeholders. In a world where survival of the fittest is the norm, only joint degrees will survive. And multiple degrees go the way of the dinosaur.

My first point, regarding responsibility and ownership, can be rephrased as a question: who is responsible for a multiple degree and who assumes ownership? Because multiple degrees are really the easy way out, they are awarded primarily by frivolous joint programme consortia; consortia of institutions putting courses through a blender and serving them as a joint programme smoothie. And each institution awards its own degree. But who is then really responsible for the joint programme? Who really assumes ownership? And aren’t these type of joint programmes just enablers for free riders, for institutions that do not, and perhaps cannot, offer comparable quality in courses and services to students? Do the partners awarding their own degrees really know each other’s quality and services?

Opponents will exclaim that awarding a joint degree is difficult. That it requires hard work. And an added investment of time; and perhaps even money. But by saying this, are they not just deflecting the blame. If the institutions do not jointly assume ownership for the joint programme by awarding a joint degree, why even offer a joint programme? And opponents will say that they already assume ownership even if they only award a multiple degree. Well, the experiences in quality assurance formally contradict that statement. Institutions involved in joint programmes regularly claim quality assurance (and accreditation) agencies should only assess the 30 credits they contribute to the joint programme “because only these are our own courses”. And then any quality assurance agency will ask: “But you still award your own degree (as part of a multiple degree) when a student adds 90 credits from elsewhere? So what about those 90 other credits?” The responses vary from “We trust our partners.” to “We have a system of credit recognition.”. Really? And you still claim to offer a joint programme? Where is the jointness? How do you know what is going on in the (joint?) curriculum for which you are awarding a degree?

Multiple degrees are like free sex: all the satisfaction and no commitment.[1] To me, a joint degree signifies commitment, responsibility and ownership. The institutions involved are stating loud and clear “We award one degree for our programme”. They are committed to a joint curriculum and they identify their ownership in a clear and transparent way; by putting their names and signatures (of their competent authorities) on one document: their joint degree. This shows the stakeholders that all these institutions assume responsibility, also when things go wrong. And from experience, I can tell you that they do. (Assume responsibility, that is.) The overall result is that a joint degree not only ensures responsibility and ownership but also consistency and contingency.

The second issue has to do with the fact that multiple degrees accept the status quo. They convince our governments that bad joint programme and joint degree legislation is acceptable.

Because I agree with all joint degree opponents that legal issues are a major problem. They are probably the most important obstacle. Indeed, national legislation almost never facilitates; it most often discourages the award of joint degrees. But this is not an excuse. There are sufficient resources and good practices for awarding joint degrees available. Still, the fact remains that some countries present their legislation as accommodating joint degrees, while in reality they are putting so many conditions in place that it actually obstructs the award of joint degrees. Why do higher education institutions take this lying down? Yes, higher education is a national competence but within the European Higher Education Area all institutions can at least expect their governments to coordinate legislation that has an impact across borders. The pleas for a coordinated and coherent deregulation of joint programmes and joint degrees are indeed growing stronger. This is in fact a call for clearer institutional autonomy with regard to joint degrees. And if governments do not respond satisfactorily, institutions might opt for (non-violent, I assume) civil disobedience. And I would support them, as long as it does not lead to the award of unrecognised degrees. This would only bring about even stricter legislation “to prevent fraud”.

And fraud brings me is my third point: multiple degrees devaluate our higher education. Joint programmes awarding multiple degrees are giving all of us in higher education a bad name. To make this point, I will have to work with examples. Imagine a joint programme of 120 credits leading to a multiple degree, here consisting of four degrees with, of course, different qualifications (“titles”).

A first issue relates to the fact that the four degrees not always have the same significance in each of the countries concerned. The multiple degree then includes a “certificate”, a document issued by an institution, but not the award of a nationally recognised degree. Perhaps this institution is not legally allowed to award such a degree (e.g. a Master of Science). The multiple degree partners here help an institution evade its national legislation and facilitate it in awarding (foreign) recognised degrees to its students.

A second issue relates to the fact that the four degrees do not necessarily grant the same status in each of the countries concerned. There are ample examples of multiple degrees where the individual degrees grant different rights, where for example only one degree gives access to PhD studies, while the others have a professional purpose. There are even examples of multiple degrees where the individual degrees are not on the same level in the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area. The multiple in multiple degree here actually stands for multiplicity; it makes institutions accomplices, not partners.

A third issue relates to the manner in which graduates include a multiple degree in their CVs. In the given example, we will see a list of four distinct degrees: each degree will have a different name and each will be awarded by different institutions. And you cannot blame this graduate. How else can a multiple degree be listed sensibly? But what will a student do when the degrees are not on the same level or when only one degree gives access to PhD studies? Indeed, multiple degrees provoke graduates to present their multiple degree as favourable, and not necessarily as truthfully, as possible.

A fourth issue relates to the perception resulting from the issues above. What will an employer think when a CV which includes a multiple degree is presented? In our example, an employer will see four degrees awarded for studying (in all probability) two years. I have been able to talk to people working in recruitment and their reactions go from: “Well, higher education must have become very easy if students can graduate from four programmes in such a short time span.” to “Why are these institutions awarding degrees for the same credits?” and even “Perhaps these degrees are just fake?” And who can blame them? Because, to add insult to injury, they also are presented with appalling Diploma Supplements.

In short, multiple degrees just multiply the confusion. They are giving all of us in higher education a bad name and actually devaluate all the hard work done by joint programmes.

To conclude, only the fittest should survive. And since I do not believe in the status quo, I think the multiple degree should be made to go the way of the dinosaurs. Let us all give them a hand and then let joint degrees conquer the earth.

End note: of course not everything is as black and white as presented above. The debate was just about black and white, and did not allow for any shades of grey. So before you ask, I am actually a tiny bit more moderate than outlined above.


  1. I had this in my speaker notes but given the seriousness of the audience (as demonstrated by not laughing with my opening joke about dinosaurs), I did not use it.

See also

Attribution of media

  • Photo #1: What I would call "A wall ready for multiple degrees" by Peas - Creative Commons 2.0 by-nc-nd
  • Photo #2: What I would call "There go the multiple degrees" by Jordan Small - Creative Commons 2.0 by-nc-nd