No progress on course transfer

On 20th December 2016 the Department for Education (DfE) published its ‘Findings from the Call for Evidence on Accelerated Courses and Switching University or Degree’, following a call for evidence between May and July 2016, which looked at both the flexibility for students to switch courses and institutions, and flexibility in provision, such as accelerated degrees.

Switching course or institution is one aspect of a Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS), which was the subject of an earlier blog from April 2015 and has attracted long-standing interest from the sector. As quoted in the Findings, the call for evidence received a significant number of responses with 44 coming from higher education providers, 24 from other bodies and 4,500 from students (including over 3,000 from those studying at the Open University). Links to a some of the individual responses available publicly are provided at the end of this post and reveal some of the vested interests that have arguably led to inertia in this area (more on that below). NB: none of the student responses were available online.

The Findings published by the DfE are underwhelming to say the least. In the Higher Education White Paper (BIS: 2016), the Government signalled an intent to tackle this area (p.53):

We want to gather evidence on how credit transfer in particular can help enable flexible and lifetime learning, and drive up quality by giving students more choice. …Some barriers to transfer are easy to fix – universities should, for example, present their policy on credit transfer clearly on their websites – but some will require significant and sustained attention. …We will engage with both institutions and students to gauge demand and identify how we can work together to overcome barriers.

And yet, the Findings only provide a summary of the responses to the call for evidence, such as “while a few providers have significant numbers of students transferring in and out of their institutions, the majority rarely facilitate such transfer” (DfE, 1). There are no recommendations or follow-up actions identified in the document; no request for institutions to publish more information about credit transfer; no plan to overcome the barriers recognised by the Government; and no indication on the gov.uk website of what next steps, if any, may follow.

It’s clear from the blog post on Wonkhe by Mark Altay of the South East England Consortium for Credit Accumulation & Transfer (SEEC) that much was expected in some quarters. “We would like to think that this is the start of a more serious debate on an under-valued subject, given that credit transfer has been discussed in the sector for at least forty years with only limited impact.” David Morris, Deputy Editor of Wonkhe, at the QAA Quality Matters event cited the consultation on credit transfer as an area of potential leverage for students.

The question is whether the earlier intent from central government to tackle this area is still there or whether the responses to the call for evidence have weakened the Government’s resolve. This is where my analysis of the (publicly available) responses differs from the Government’s.

Analysis of responses

  • Respondents from research-intensive universities maintain that there are existing processes for credit and course transfer (e.g. recognition of prior learning), therefore the impact of such a system would be minimal due to the low numbers of (current) course transfers. The response from the Russell Group said that ‘”Portability of credit is welcome in principle”, however “It is important to note that an increased incidence of degree switching would only be viable with a significant flow of students into, as well as out of, institutions; given the incidence of courses recruiting to capacity and high levels of retention at Russell Group universities there is less scope for this pattern of movement.”
  • As well as pointing to a current lack of demand, the principle of institutional autonomy is defended. The Russell Group says it is vital that institutions retain full ownership of the admissions process and the risk of enforced homogeneity in course design to enable transfer (a straw man argument?) would be detrimental.
  • The responses from some professional bodies offer similar views; the BMA notes that credit transfer doesn’t apply to medicine and its implementation would “require homogenisation of all medical courses across the UK”; and the HCPC says that “the difficult task of matching learning outcomes is made more complex by the necessity to also assess equivalence of professional standards”.
  • Many respondents point to the inflexibility in the way student loan funding is allocated on a year basis without other modes of study, such as modular, taken into account. This is an area the Government should consider and the GuildHE response argues this point well.
  • As may be expected, new providers and sector bodies with an interest in areas such as vocational training and lifelong learning are more positive about course transfer. The Association of Colleges identified subject/discipline level communities as the best place to explore this area – where there is “enough common content … to allow universities to credit others (sic) universities programmes” – through
  • learning outcomes detailing to the student and the receiving provider exactly what learning has been credited;
  • a national community of practice that is committed to ensuring the system works.
  • Similarly, and in contrast to the other professional bodies mentioned above, the IPEM says that “credit transfer could be better implemented across higher education in fields where accreditation standards by external professional bodies (like IPEM or the Institute of Physics) are established and widespread” (as accredited courses have been independently assessed as meeting certain standards).
  • And, SEEC offers some suggestions for how credit transfer could work, including:
  • An explicit entitlement to the recognition of prior learning (including both certificated and experiential learning) were established, regulated and monitored.
  • All Institutions were required to make their credit transfer practices open and transparent to establish credit as the ‘common currency’ for learning.
  • The Competitions and Market Authority had a role to ensure that institutional policies governing the transfer and recognition of credit were implemented as advertised.
  • Learners had an independent source of advice on credit transfer (currently only some institutions provide advice and they may have vested interests that may not align with those of the learner).
  • There was a register of the volume of credit given by institutions for professional awards towards higher qualifications and for institutional benchmarking purposes.
  • A more consistent learner record existed enabling admissions tutors to make detailed decisions on students entering with advanced standing without the need to ask for significant additional evidence.

Summary:

Credit and course transfer bring challenges and the responses to the call for evidence provide enough information about these challenges, which after all have prevented widespread use of such a scheme up until now. Judging by the lack of further action proposed by the Government it may be that some of the vested interests have held sway and the appetite to tackle the challenges and “encourage more students to transfer between institutions”  (BIS, 19) has diminished. If true, this is a shame as there is progress that can be made to support students needing or wishing to change course, particularly around transparency and support.


Repository of published responses to the call for evidence

Responses from sector bodies
Association of Colleges (AoC)
GuildHE
Independent Higher Education
Million Plus
Russell Group
South East England Consortium for Credit Accumulation & Transfer (SEEC)
Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA)
Universities Association for Lifelong Learning (UALL)
University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC)
Responses from Professional, Statutory & Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs)
British Medical Association (BMA) (NB: the response is automatically downloaded as a pdf file)
Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC)
Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC)
Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM)
Royal Society of Biology (RSB)
Responses from universities/providers
Bournemouth University
Pearson College
University of Southampton

References

Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) (2016) Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/523396/bis-16-265-success-as-a-knowledge-economy.pdf  [Accessed 21 December 2016]

Department for Education (DfE) (2016) Findings from the Call for Evidence on Accelerated Courses and Switching University or Degree [online] Available at: https://goo.gl/GZsVAy [shortened url] [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Mark Altay (SEEC) (2016) ‘Degrees of choice: credit transfer and university autonomy’ Wonkhe. Available at: http://wonkhe.com/blogs/analysis-degrees-choice-credit-transfer-institutional-autonomy/ [Accessed 21 December 2016]


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