Credit frameworks in a lattice of learning

David Kernohan takes a closer look at the new QAA credit framework and explains how it could become one of the more influential documents in higher education.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

The idea of academic credit underpins much of the current and emerging thinking about skills provision.

And new guidance from the QAA gives us a handle on this surprisingly complex concept.

“Academic credit” quantifies learning – giving an indication of both the level of study and the amount of effort required. It’s something that is deeply embedded in the way we experience and understand education – we know, for example, that an A level in chemistry and a foundation degree in chemistry are not at a comparable level of study, even though they both take the same amount of time.

How things stand

In the UK the bachelor’s (honours) degree is established as the standard unit of higher education – it is the dominant type of qualification. In most of the world (including Scotland), and in some subject areas in the wider UK, a bachelor’s degree requires four years of study. A historical quirk means that in England and Wales the norm is three years. But it is possible to gain an English honours degree in two years, and indeed legislation exists to allow for this in funding models.

More importance is given to a concept called “credit value” – based on estimated learning hours, with one “credit” equivalent to ten notional hours of learning. The learning here can include timetabled hours, assessment, directed learning, and an estimate of the amount of personal study required.

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland a framework called FHEQ provides a hierarchy of levels – for example in higher education a foundation degree is level 5, a bachelor’s degree is level 6, a master’s degree is level 7, and a Phd is level 8. Scotland has a separate framework – the SCQF – in which a bachelor’s degree is level 9, a bachelor’s honours degree is level 10, and a doctorate level 12.

Here’s some credit values for common higher education qualifications, in a table adapted from the QAA publication:

Typical HE qualificationsFHEQ levelFHEQ minimum creditSCQF levelSCQF minimum credit
PhD/Dphil812540 (420 at L12)
Mphil711180 (150 at L11)
MSc/MA7180 (150 at L7)11180 (150 at L11)
Mpharm, Meng7480 (120 at L7)11600 (120 at L11)
BA/BSc (Hons)6360 (90 at L6)10480 (90 at L9, 90 at L10)
BA/BSc (non Hons)6300 (60 at L6)9360 (60 at L9)
Foundation degree5240 (90 at L5)
HND5240 (90 at L5)8240
HNC4120 (60 at L4)796

The new Higher Technical Qualifications in England will primarily be at level four and level five. Degree and Higher Apprenticeships can be anywhere between level four and level seven.

Hints of the future

The QAA’s “making use of credit” may not have a headline-friendly title, but it is likely to become one of the more influential higher education publications. Here we ease in gently with a recap of the agency’s research into micro-credentials. Clearly, given government interest in shorter, skills-heavy, courses in England and Scotland – the notional credit weight of a given module may soon become an explicitly credit bearing qualification in its own right. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill aims drops the idea of credit bearing and fundable modules into legislation in England, and pilots are already running in Scotland.

The reflective questions are the big ones – how do you allocate a level to a module studied in isolation, and can it be used to stack-up to a larger qualification. This latter point opens another can of worms about currency and validity – in fast-moving subject areas will credit need an expiry date?

Your academic registry could do an awful lot worse during their first post-pandemic strategy awayday than to work through the document in sequence. Credit for CPD, for executive education and adult learning courses, the way placements and other work experience are allocated credit, working with PSRBs, apprenticeships, even the need for a quicker turnaround in providing marks at stop-go progression points in accelerated degree programmes – these are pretty much the key structural questions higher education faces

Definitional professional

You might be wondering by now if credit really refers to the contribution a module makes towards a stated outcome (a 15 credit module as a component of a 360 credit honours degree), or as an assessment of the workload required (a learner studying for 150 hours)? The answer, of course, is both – but in the way providers use credit currently the focus is very much on the former.

As anyone who has studied in higher education will know, the recommended hours of study (particularly the independent study hours) are often completely ignored by learners. But the nature and importance of this independent study – which can include anything from writing and researching essays, to writing up your lab book, to building architectural models, to practicing your chosen art form is variable between subjects and based on the interest and commitment of the learner.

Whereas providers can use assessment to determine whether a learner has studied successfully at a particular level, this approach does not provide a measure of how much study has been done. Although credits are awarded as a result of a successful assessment, it is entirely possible to pass an assessment (especially a poorly designed assessment) without really mastering the skills (which generally equates to doing the work) required to do so. When you consider stacking credits awarded by another provider some time ago onto your award, this becomes a problem, and this problem is magnified where professional, statutory, or regulatory bodies (PSRBs) are involved.

Not all PSRB requirements are necessarily credit-bearing, but if you are dealing with the skills or knowledge needed for professional practice currency and competence become key considerations. The QAA already work with PSRBs to help define their needs in ways that suit students and providers, but adding in prior learning (and, for that matter, prior experience) is a different matter.

A mechanism?

There’s a school of thought – which I certainly have some sympathy with – that would see the very idea of a credit framework as a mechanistic and utilitarian framework of education. It would be a simplification – there’s nothing in the codification that prohibits or stigmatises learning for the sake of learning, and there’s no suggestion that anyone believes that all learning has to lead in some way to some qualification or other endpoint.

That said, with definitions of modules now making their way onto the statute books, and a general policy predilection towards flexibility the fundability of learning is inexorably linked to academic frameworks. How well what your department, faculty, or provider can describe what it offers against these frameworks will have a serious impact on how viable it is.

Policy, after all, is really only a convoluted way of talking about data and definitions.

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