Degrees of choice: credit transfer and university autonomy

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The consultation on credit transfer, switching universities and accelerated degrees received a mammoth 4,500 responses. We’re still awaiting the detailed analysis, which is due out this side of Christmas, but it’s clear from the numbers that a lot of people will be interested in the outcome.

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. The European Higher Education Area made the recognition of prior learning a key element of the Yerevan communiqué in 2015 and, back in 2008 the European Universities Association’s Lifelong Learning Charter very explicitly called for greater mutual recognition of credit across European higher education. Brexit makes it even more important and urgent that the UK engage seriously with credit transfer internationally, both within Europe and elsewhere, if we are to remain a leading player in international higher education.

Furthermore, credit transfer and wider recognition of students’ prior learning has significant value for widening participation in higher education. As an organisation committed to highlighting the value of credit, SEEC has identified some of the challenges presented within the current arrangements which informed its own response to the consultation.

The challenges for credit transfer

Credit transfer, in its broadest sense, is not necessarily about switching university or degrees. Its fundamental purpose is to support learner development and progression. Whilst this may involve switching courses or degrees, it also supports the completion of courses and moving on to higher awards; from Foundation degree to Honours degree for example, or moving between professional and academic awards. Credit transfer can enable the recognition of learning from a variety of contexts and can – at least in theory – place the learner in control of when, where and what to study as their interests and circumstances change.

Our higher education system is built around the narrow needs of 18-21 year-olds where inputs such as UCAS points and time served on course matter as much as outcomes. But for many learners the optimum time for higher learning is not 18-21, and three years’ full-time study is often not feasible for family or financial reasons. Alongside their portfolio careers, learners need portfolio ‘just-in-time’ learning which supports academic and career progression. Credit transfer can make this happen.

Credit transfer systems are long established but there are still serious barriers to flexibility and mobility. Systems are built by, and for, institutions, rarely with the needs of learners in mind. Here we identify four key challenges that need to be addressed.

  • First, we need to resolve the apparent tension between a national credit transfer system and institution’s protection of their autonomy. Fair and transparent credit recognition presents no threat to institutional autonomy. The current tension need not and must not be a rationale for inaction at the national level. Credit can only flourish if it is constituted as a form of common currency, grounded in the clear demonstration of outcomes against a national standard (the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications) and subject benchmarks.
  • Secondly, there is the problem of institutional elitism: ‘I am not going to accept credit from institution X because they are lower in the league tables than us’. To re-iterate the point above, if credits have been awarded for the clear demonstration of outcomes against a national standard (the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications) and subject benchmarks, where these exist, then where is the problem? If providers don’t recognise credit given by another higher education institution, the implication is that QAA’s expectations for standards, and the whole UK quality assurance system, might be called into question – a dangerous double standard.
  • Thirdly, there is too often slavish adherence to mechanistic processes built around learning outcomes and volumes of credit. In hierarchical subjects, where higher level work builds directly on a lower level grounding (I need to do Biochemistry 1 before I can do Biochemistry 2), then there is a need for a close matching of course content, but not all subjects are like this. Too often, an unthinking over-specification of pre-requisites and content prevents learner development and means they have to effectively tread water before they can progress. When learners are making a substantive personal and financial commitments to their education this is unnecessarily restrictive.
  • Fourthly, there is the issue of ensuring students take the most appropriate progression route. The three-year, often single subject-focused, degree remains the gold standard for government (implicit in many aspects of the call for evidence), institutions and employers. Yet most graduates don’t go into employment in areas directly related to their degree subject and learners who are in employment, seeking to transfer credit and have their wider learning recognised, may find that traditional honours degrees are not the most appropriate progression route or benchmarking point.

So let’s have a mature debate about credit: one which is built about the realities of life in 2016, has the needs of learners at its heart, and creates routes that support life-wide and life-long learning. SEEC stands ready to support the debate with their extensive knowledge and expertise. It is time to set aside our exclusive practices and work together to put learners first.

This article was written on behalf of SEEC with significant contributions from Marina Beck (Royal Holloway), Darryll Bravenboer (Middlesex University), Peter Gambles (Oxford University) and Liz Marr (Open University).

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