Not one to shy away from needling away at some of higher education established norms and vested interests; Jo Johnson is trying to encourage credit transfer, enabling students to switch provider, through amendments to his Higher Education and Research Bill.
The proposals follow the call for evidence which accompanied 2016’s White Paper, although the newly proposed levers appear weak. Will Johnson’s reforms fall by the wayside like every other attempt to kick start credit transfer in UK HE?
Proposals for credit transfer systems may not be new, but enthusiasm for developing systems has so far been a niche interest. SEEC, an organisation which aims to promote credit transfer, was formed in 1985; it is still going, and members wrote for Wonkhe on the opportunities which might now be available with government enthusiasm for the policy. But in spite of some keen interest, there are well-documented barriers to the effective operation of a credit transfer system.
The government’s consultation on credit transfer and accelerated degrees received a huge number of responses (4,500), though two-thirds of these came from the Open University’s students. The OU has a particular interest in promoting the credit transfer policy: the notion aligns with its principles of flexible learning, but it is also well situated to offer the chance for students to complete awards started at other institutions. DfE’s response to the consultation at the end of last year provided only scant information on the developing policy. But Jo Johnson is now personally championing the agenda.
The credit transfer idea has also been put alongside a renewed enthusiasm for flexible learning. It’s a straightforward progression to say that a credit-based system of learning with portability between providers could also be a strong basis for ongoing skills development as learners’ needs flex to meet the needs of employers, and changing personal interests. The efforts on industrial strategy provide a useful hook.
University Alliance published a report with a series of recommendations to promote lifelong learning, though credit transfer systems were notably absent. Getting universities – which can see credit transfer as potentially robbing them of students and making planning more difficult, or simply too complicated to administer – to agree to joint communiqués is a challenging business.
But in spite of the likely resistance, Johnson is pushing ahead. In his grant letter to HEFCE, he said:
As part of the Government’s higher education reforms, we are seeking to promote the transfer of students between courses and institutions. Student transfer offers students more flexibility to choose the type of study most suitable for them and contributes to ensuring that all those who could benefit from higher education are able to do so. The Council will need to keep in mind the importance of student transfer and ways in which it might support its promotion and take-up.
And then, alongside a slew of amendments to the Bill, DfE announced:
We have tabled amendments which would place a duty on the OfS to monitor and report on the provision of arrangements for student transfer and their take-up; and which would confer a power on the OfS to facilitate, encourage, or promote awareness of, arrangements for student transfer.
Missing jigsaw piece
The real barrier to an effective credit transfer system isn’t policy encouragement – we’ve had years of that. The key problem is finance, and it’s interesting to see that Johnson’s proposals for accelerated degrees tackle just that problem: he proposes allowing institutions to charge more for delivering more. In the case of credit accumulation and transfer, it would work much better if fees (and associated loans) were credit-based, allowing students the flexibility to finance flexible learning.
Setting aside whether the Student Loans Company could manage this policy, it would allow a student to leave one institution and start at another more seamlessly; at the moment, any student leaving part way through an academic year has to wait for the start of the next before they can access funding. Johnson knows that the real incentives don’t come from policy nudges, but from aligning the finance system to policy objectives: he’s proposing this for accelerated degrees.
Credit or debit?
As with so much of the Bill, the impact of the policy depends on the extent to which the bodies created – OfS and UKRI – exercise their powers. A ‘duty to monitor and report’ is at the low end of powers available when it could have been possible to make credit transfer nudges in providers’ registration conditions, access agreements or in the publication of information to students. Facilitating and encouraging are nice words, but for fans of credit transfer systems, it’s not a great comfort that OfS will merely promote awareness.
If Johnson wants to get a system of credit transfer up and running, he will need to do more than ‘encourage’. At this rate, we can put him on the (now long) list of people who thought this was a good idea but then found it too difficult, or not interesting enough. Or maybe this, as with other amendments, is a clever bit of politics designed to look like real action. If he were really serious, he’d also look at ways of financing by credit: why should students have to take loans in whole-year chunks? Let’s see what OfS does with this nudge but don’t hold your breath if you’re waiting for a fully fledged (and used) system of credit transfer in UK HE.