Academic credit – unfinished business?

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In their recent survey of regulation and practice underpinning degree algorithms, UUK and GuildHE found that “…the majority of changes have tended to focus on reassessment rules and credit architecture”. Over the past twenty years the UK Credit Forum (UKCF) has been regularly monitoring sector-wide aspects of academic credit and its use to structure programmes of study and to frame associated academic regulations.

Academic credit is important because it not only permits programmes to be designed with comparable levels of demand and broadly similar outcomes at each academic level, but also because it helps support student mobility and flexibility in study to meet changing personal ambitions and circumstances. Academic credit provides the basic building blocks for lifelong learning and, through a shared understanding of the principles that underpin its use, the cement that helps bind these together in a meaningful structure.

The outcomes of the most recent UKCF survey have just been published and show the progress that has been made in developing a consistent understanding while highlighting opportunities for further work, including the following areas of long-standing concern:

  • monitoring the effectiveness of credit transfer,
  • issues in the re-use of credit,
  • the award of credit by compensation,
  • recording achievement and
  • bureaucratic / procedural complexity in considering applications for advanced entry.

Monitoring effectiveness

Our research findings indicate that lifelong learning, using Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) and credit transfer processes, is a growing area for institutions, but that few have in place procedures for monitoring the different ways in which credit is being used to support flexible study. This might include internal course transfers, progression from partners, direct entry with advanced standing, credit for professional awards giving exemptions from modules, study overseas etc. Furthermore, Institutions acknowledge that more needs to be done to promote such opportunities to potential students in a manner which is open and accessible.  Without monitoring (or agreement about what we should monitor) we cannot know whether we are being successful in promoting flexible learning opportunities and where the demands for further use are or where the issues lie.

There are some aspects where there needs to be further sector-wide work to develop a common understanding. One example of this is the issue of the ‘double counting’ of credit: under what circumstances can credit be used to contribute to multiple awards at the same or higher levels? Institutional regulations and practices show considerable variation in this area with few shared underlying principles. We argue that such a lack of clarity places additional barriers to student mobility and flexibility of study that inhibit lifelong learning and place students at risk of having to undertake additional, and perhaps unnecessary, study in order to progress academically.  

The award of credit by compensation

A further area for development relates to the different ways in which institutions define compensation and condonement and how these mechanisms help shape student progression and final degree outcomes (see above). The UKCF has long argued for consistency along lines where compensation leads to the awarding of credit whilst condonement does not. Agreement about these terms and the principles under which they operate is long overdue.

Much work has been done to provide students, graduates and other interested parties (employers, admissions tutors) with more informative records of learning achievements. How credit (including RPL and credit transfer) is recorded on such transcripts shows considerable variation between providers, which mitigates against a climate supportive of student mobility, progression and lifelong learning.  

Death by red tape?

Those responding to the survey saw the administrative burden of RPL as being the major barrier to its increasing use. We recognise that placing more of an emphasis on student flexibility of study puts more of an administrative burden on institutions. However, we argue that because there are few underlying sector-wide principles that underpin some aspects of RPL and credit transfer, some institutions have developed over-complex systems and procedures which both act as a barrier and are resource intensive. We hope that this is an area that the Office for Students will be willing to take on to explore how to best support flexibility of study and progression for those many students who sit outside of ‘normal’ three-year full-time degree study.

Previous credit surveys have reached similar conclusions. The current consultation on the review of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education offers an opportunity to clarify these issues and to articulate the basis on which a provider may be confident that their “assessment and classification processes… are reliable, fair and transparent”.

3 thoughts on “Academic credit – unfinished business?”

  1. Jon Talbot says:

    There is no real ‘administrative burden’ with recognising past learning. This is the cry of those who either do not want to do or do not know how to.

    We have had enough surveys over the years diagnosing the same problems and lack of implementation. What is really needed is an active version of the US CAEL. The Learning from Experience Trust, which in the past has performed this role and spread practice has been moribund since the death of its founder Norman Evans.

    The main barrier to recognition is that past learning does not accord with prescribed learning outcomes. Practice will only spread when programmes are created with learning outcomes which are sufficiently flexible to enable the incorporation of past learning into formal credit. A second issue is devising procedures which enable the volume and levelness of learning to be established.

  2. David says:

    “variation between providers” may militate against a climate supportive of student mobility, progression and lifelong learning; mitigating against anything makes no sense.

  3. Darryll Bravenboer says:

    The sooner we move to a systems where credit is recognised as a ‘common currency’ in higher education learning achievement the sooner its full potential for empowering lifelong learning will be realised. When will policy advisers fully grasp that enabling access to higher education through RPL is also a major way to reduce the size of the ‘loan book’ at the same time as enhancing social mobility?

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