“An increase in course and institution transfer would also bolster the role that higher education plays as a leading vehicle for social mobility. If the option of transferring were more available, then it would be to the benefit of students who might otherwise have dropped out, perhaps because they needed to be in a different part of the country, as well as reduce the typically three-year commitment that deters potential students with less secure backgrounds.” White Paper, p53
Team Wonkhe decided to get a head start on newly-reopened debate about credit accumulation and transfer. We know it’s an old debate, and seen as a fringe interest by proponents of a Schengen-style borderless higher education world.
To get the ball rolling, we’ve presented a few options:
1. The transfer window
The sector could have a window, say at the end of the first year of an undergraduate degree, where all students could put their hat into the ring (via UCAS?) with a record of the modules they’ve taken and results for their first year. Then through clearing they could seek to trade up/down/across as they see fit. This way, you can keep the coherence of the final two years of a bachelor’s degree, especially given that in many places the first year won’t count towards the final classification. This builds on the accreditation/recognition of prior learning already in place, but adds a structure to promote mobility.
2. Pick and mix
Students could opt, like the Open University’s Open Degree, to take a range of modules from any provider so long as they accumulate credit at the relevant levels for the award. This would be the purest form of accumulation/transfer but would require a reassessment of what it is to hold the award, given the potential for incoherence (twelve 30 credit modules for a bachelor’s degree, each from a different provider?). Where would the degree certificate come from – a role for the OU, the pioneers of this approach, perhaps?
3. In this together
Groups of institutions with an inclination to share their portfolios could club together to share modules. Within a city, for example, students could take courses from across the providers to gather the necessary credit. There could be efficiencies with shared teaching of some core courses such as methods training.
Moving to a system of borderless transfer wouldn’t be easy. It would require a lot more cooperation and a willingness to reconsider the nature of the degree. And students should be protected from building incoherent awards which don’t help them develop the necessary skills, knowledge or experience.
David Watson, writing for HEPI in 2014 summed up the stark truth about credit transfer: “The most important pressure militating against the success of Credit Accumulation and Transfer (CATS) in UK HE seems to have been institutional protectionism, reflected especially in the reluctance to grant advanced standing on admission. This is reinforced by funding approaches which devalue part-time and mixed-mode study.”
We know the challenges, particularly for an increasingly competitive sector resistant to perceived threats to institutional autonomy. But there’s a lot of potential in the idea. Students could more easily take control of building their own experience and could more easily redress deficits in the advice and guidance they receive pre-first-time-application. If you believe that student choice and the operation of a market is a key to driving quality, then students need the chance to choose.