Herding CATS

The higher education sector has seen a number of interventions recently from consumer bodies and organisations, including Which? and the Competition & Markets Authority who have brought their own perspectives on the way universities need to operate.

This has largely focused attention on the information provided by universities to applicants and students, calling for greater transparency and accessibility of information. In this post I will consider one particular area: the inertia surrounding changing courses from one institution to another, which has prevented the widespread use of credit accumulation and transfer schemes (CATS), long discussed by the sector, and why the concept of automatic transfer “is a mirage even where CATS are currently well established” (Bekhradnia, 2004).

The principle behind CATS is that credit gained is owned by the student and can be moved from institution to institution. It is a crucial scheme for flexible and lifelong learning, enabling the accumulation of credits at the student’s pace. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE)’s ‘Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning’ (Schuller and Watson, 2009) identified that a credit-based system was essential for post-school learning and that funding should be based on such a credit system, i.e. that a per-credit or per-module fee was an approach in support of flexible learning, as opposed to set course fees.

CATS are underpinned by credit frameworks, both at national and European level. The vast majority of universities offer modules which, when completed, award credits to students, with the modules benchmarked against the credit frameworks. Although breaking-down course content into discrete parcels of credit may undermine the coherence of full-time study, the establishment of commonalities between university’s programmes and modules via such frameworks is key for CATS.

Course transfer

1.6 “…for most students deciding what and where to study will be a ‘one-off’ decision involving the investment of a significant amount of time and money. That decision needs to be properly informed and right for them. Once students have enrolled, if they are dissatisfied with their experience, it is likely to be difficult for them to switch HE providers or courses.” (CMA, 2015b)

Much of the debate around higher education has focused in recent times on 18 year old undergraduates taking full-time degree courses and the consumer groups’ interventions follow this trend. As I have mentioned, fee structures based at course level undermine credit transfer, as institutions are incentivised to recruit students from year 1 who bring in the full course fee. This leads to a situation whereby fee waivers for module exemption, where it is permitted, leave students paying a disproportionately high fee. Furthermore, charges are often levied for making applications for credit transfer.

There is a further disincentive for universities in the effort required to consider and process each case for credit transfer. Differences in regulatory structures and course design make it time-consuming to consider each individual case and in some instances judgements on equivalent study, usually made by matching course content from the study already undertaken with learning outcomes on modules being exempted, cannot be made. Where economies of scale can be achieved is in the establishment of access or articulation agreements, i.e. by formalising routes onto courses so that individual assessment of prior learning is unnecessary. The Open University, a pioneer in credit transfer, operates a ‘collaborative scheme‘ which allows modules studied at other institutions to count towards an OU award without the need for every student to complete an application form. Crucially, the module results count towards the degree classification which is not normally the case for prior learning recognised by other universities.

In summary then, the inertia surrounding changing institution is caused by the reasons outlined above: funding and fee arrangements, course design and regulatory structures. A territorial or hierarchical mindset on the part of universities can also restrict the openness to the concept of credit transfer, for example bias on the part of the assessor about where the prior learning has taken place. Furthermore, from the student perspective, there are logistical and social issues that restrict students’ free movement – having to relocate, wishing to continue alongside their peer group and course places being filled by first year students preventing transfer in. All that being said, there is scope for more to be done to facilitate credit transfer and allow students greater access to flexible study.

The OU’s domination of credit transfer:

“In 2011/12 only 3,206 students entered years two or above on the basis of higher education credits earned in other universities: 2,333 of these (65%) entered the OU. Meanwhile the OU took in 28.3% of the 27,895 students who entered on the basis of formal sub-degree qualifications, like HNDs and Foundation Degrees” (Watson, 2014)


Bekhradnia, B. (2004) ‘Credit Accumulation and Transfer, and the Bologna Process: an Overview’ Higher Education Policy Institute (hepi). Available at: http://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/13CATFullReport.pdf [Accessed 31 March 2015]

Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) (2015a) An effective regulatory framework for higher education: A policy paper. Available at: https://assets.digital.cabinet-office.gov.uk/media/550bf3c740f0b61404000001/Policy_paper_on_higher_education.pdf [Accessed 31 March 2015]

CMA (2015b) UK higher education providers – advice on consumer protection law. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/411676/HE_providers_-_advice_on_consumer_protection_law.pdf [Accessed 31 March 2015]

Schuller, T. and Watson, D. (2009) ‘Learning Through Life Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning (Summary)’ National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). Available at: http://www.niace.org.uk/lifelonglearninginquiry/docs/IFLL-summary-english.pdf [Accessed 31 March 2015]

The Higher Education Academy (2013) Review of credit accumulation and transfer policy and practice in UK higher education. Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Review_of_Transfer_of_Credit_Report.pdf  [Accessed online 31 March 2015]

Watson, D. (2014) ‘‘Only connect’: Is there still a higher education sector?’ Higher Education Policy Institute (hepi) Occasional Paper 8. Available at: http://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Only-Connect-WEB-clean.pdf [Accessed 31 March 2015]

Which? (2014) A degree of value: Value for money from the student perspective. Available at: http://www.staticwhich.co.uk/documents/pdf/a-degree-of-value-value-for-money-from-the-student-perspective-which-report-386517.pdf [Accessed online 31 March 2015]


One thought on “Herding CATS

  1. Pingback: No progress on course transfer | Exit Velocity

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