Though it may appear to be a small tweak to the system, introducing interim qualifications requires an overhaul to the way we see rewards and credit within higher education. And it needs to be understood as such to avoid any side effects of policy aimed at expanding its use across the sector.
The Augar review of post-18 education and funding recommends that providers issue interim qualifications – that is, qualifications at “mid-way” stages of a degree programme – with the aim of allowing students to pause study or transfer courses or institutions more easily. The review suggests this is most likely to benefit older and/or part-time students.
How does this change things? Under the current system, students have the option to exit most undergraduate degree courses mid-way with either a Certificate (Level 4: CertHE) or a Diploma (Level 5: DipHE). The report suggests that this become the norm, with all higher education institutions awarding least one interim qualification at either Level 4 or Level 5 to all students who are on a Level 6 course. It further stipulates that the Office for Students is given regulatory oversight of all qualifications at levels 4 and 5.
To understand what these proposals mean for higher education, we first need to look at the current system by which we reward students. Loosely, we operate a deficit model of education whereby a complete degree is the expected outcome, and anything less is seen as a failure to achieve that outcome, rather than each year of study being rewarded as a substantive year of education in and of itself. Understanding interim qualifications requires us to reframe the debate from the opposite perspective – this gives us a strength model, whereby each year is seen primarily as progression on the year before. The idea of staged learning is used widely – one example is music education, which tends to be examined in levels from grade one to grade eight.
Both models have their uses, with a deficit model perhaps more useful in scenarios where a specified level of competence needs to be reached – consider a driving test, for instance. Higher education, however, is set up differently – the framework for learning at each level is such that learning at Level 4 covers foundations then needed to develop further competencies at Level 5 and then at Level 6. Given that most courses are designed on this level-by-level basis, it is possible to award qualifications for progressing from one to another.
The retention question
The issue most often raised in response is the impact of such a system on student retention – if students are rewarded at levels 4 and 5, where is the incentive for them to finish their degrees? This critique relies on the assumption that students will be more likely to drop out if they are rewarded for each year of study, rather than at the end.
But the claim does not differentiate between different groups of students – if students in general enter higher education in pursuit of a degree qualification, there are no clear grounds to suggest that being rewarded at every stage would negatively affect their motivation any more than achieving piano grades three and four do not tend to demotivate students who want to get to grade eight. If anything, being rewarded at every stage could motivate students by offering them more short-term targets (like completing each year) and giving them the tangible rewards needed to boost their confidence to continue to the next stage.
What the system might do is open up choice for students who are already considering leaving higher education to do so with a certificate for the studies they’ve completed. With this in mind, the question we need to ask is whether it is in anyone’s interests to sustain the barriers to leaving higher education that currently constrain students in this position. To get to the bottom of this claim would require more comprehensive data on students’ reasons for exit.
It’s not really in the hands of providers to begin with, however – for a sector-wide change, there are factors external to providers that the Augar review has not taken into account. The success of any interim rewards system requires funding change to accommodate such a system, and either different or additional metrics to offer a more comprehensive image of provider performance.
Under the current system, students register for degrees and apply for student loans to cover the number of years their degree course is expected to take. The system of funding does not easily allow for students to register one year at a time. Moreover, provider performance is measured in terms of retention, progression and outcomes of their students among other things – and so provider incentives must also be taken into account in the recommendation of such changes, along with wider implications for the alignment and interdependence of different systems within higher education.
There are knock-on effects for credit transfer and accumulation, too – though providers tend to teach on a level-by-level basis, different courses cover different bases and so whether a certificate of Level 4 from one institution qualifies a student to enter at Level 5 at another institution remains a matter of discretion as each course is set up differently.
The Augar panel has put forward a recommendation that focuses on motivating and rewarding students first and foremost. But where it falls down is that it frames as a tweak to the system what is in fact quite a weighty proposal that requires fundamental change in other systems within higher education to succeed as policy.