David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

At the recent Universities UK conference universities minister Robert Halfon practically begged universities to sort out credit transfer.

It was, on many levels, a curious request to make.

Especially as it was with regard to a key component of this government’s flagship skills policy.

No single university or college can unilaterally implement credit transfer without support from the rest of the sector. Though it has long been the dream of ministers to see learners switching providers and courses mid-stream as a benefit of the market, the evidence for demand is very limited and the current uptake of existing schemes is low.

Credit transfer is a far more complex process than airy policy pronouncements make it seem. Even supposed innovations like standardised transcripts (most universities offer the European “Diploma Supplement” and graduates in the UK have their right to request one enshrined in the Bologna agreement – and who remembers HEAR?) do not make the process any easier or quicker.

How to transfer a credit

The first common category error to make here is to think credit transfer is a single dimension. There are, in fact, four linked but independent variables:

  • The level of study – in FHEQ terms is it level 4 (first year undergraduate), level 5, level 6, level 7 (masters)?
  • The amount of study – usually measured in the one credit equals ten nominal hours of learning formulation pioneered by SEEC and used everywhere.
  • The topic of study – both in general terms (history or physics?) and micro-specific ones (as directly complies with professional standards?)
  • The outcome of study – did you pass the module? Did you smash an A, or scrape a D?

There may also be considerations around currency (did you study computer science last year or in the 1980s?) and place (was this learning part of UK-accredited training for a professional role?).

If you are in a provider, you need to know all of this information before you decide that a unit of learning from elsewhere replaces a unit of learning from your course or award offer. You will also need a clear understanding of your own provision in these terms.

But it gets messier. We need also to unpick the relationship between an award (what someone gets at the end of a unit of learning, be that a BSc (hons), an FDA, a CertHE, or a microcredential) and a course (the teaching, learning, and assessment followed in order to become eligible for that award).

Usually, holding an award from a provider means that you have followed a course at that provider that has been judged suitable (via either an internal or external quality assurance process) to qualify you to receive the named award – though practice in some profession is changing, and the link between an award and an assessment (for example, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination in Law) is becoming more important.

People bringing credit from elsewhere are likely not to have reached the level of an award, so the question needs to be about the equivalency of learning on a course. The sources of truth here are generally module and course descriptors, bolstered by assessment results to ensure that someone really has learned what the course offers.

So credit transfer is a complex and labour intensive process, both for staff at the new provider and the learner themselves. Digging out old transcripts and course handbooks can take a while, and the comparisons that drive the whole process are very much based on academic judgement. Often, a suitable assessment is used as a quicker way of understanding what a prospective student has already learned.

Institutional realities

It is rare for a university or college to have specialist staff dealing with credit transfer – for a cold approach the work usually falls to already overburdened academic staff and departmental administrators. Because requests are comparatively rare, there is often not a well-understood or commonly used process so there is an element of learning as you go.

There are some providers (especially in Scotland, or other higher education institutions with close links to FE partners) who routinely offer credit transfer as a part of an established articulation agreement. Here the sheer volume of traffic means that the processes are well understood, but this is primarily because the host provider essentially owns both of the programmes in question. Not of course, that transfer between two programmes in one provider is easy or straightforward in most cases.

As credit transfer is nobody’s primary job, it is a job that can get neglected. An applicant with existing academic credit from elsewhere will often choose not to persevere with a sclerotic and difficult exercise in bureaucracy – simply cracking on with the course (and using your existing knowledge to enable strategic learning) is the norm.

This might feel like a waste of scarce student funds, but we need to remember that there is usually a cost incurred in credit transfer too. Some providers will swallow the cost to (hopefully) admit the student, others will – especially in complex cases or ones that involve experiential as well as academic credit – charge the applicant directly.

Nobody’s job and nobody is interested?

So, we are left with a situation where the minister thinks something is a good idea but there is uncertain demand, huge structural issues in making it work, and a likely net loss for universities – something that feels rather familiar to fans of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement.

It’s an issue that has been lamented by a cavalcade of sector reviews – Schwartz, Burgess, Dearing – and has persisted through numerous attempts to kickstart both demand and supply. The old Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) had a good go, with its work forming the basis of the widely-used Southern England Consortium for Credit Accumulation and Transfer (SEEC) definitions – including the infamous ten hours equals one credit.

The Department for Education published an excellent literature review on the topic as recently as 2017 – the credit transfer job was initially given to the Office for Students, which stuck experimental statistics (based on F2 registration condition returns) out for two years before regulatory action ceased at the behest of DfE in 2020.

The LLE, for reasons it is difficult to understand, is predicated on the implementation of credit transfer. Though there is a proven market for (and clear evidence of a demand for) stand-alone short courses, with many universities already offering substantial portfolios, the “stackable” idea seems to have stuck in the minds of policy makers as a key selling point.

It’s the kind of thing that makes instinctual sense, until you realise the limitations inherent in allowing learners merely to pluck smaller chunks from larger courses. This does not make it any easier to offer or accredit stand-alone short courses, and neither is there any evidence that this makes the courses more attractive to learners.

Fixing it

The criticism levelled at those noting the lack of demand for credit transfer is generally that there is no demand precisely because the idea is little known. If you are applying to university as a mature learner, details are often hidden away in a pdf from the main page where you fill the form in – you have to know to look for it. A first step would be to advertise, nationally, the availability of credit transfer directly to mature and returning learners.

There has also been some encouraging noises made about younger applicants taking advantage of a credit based loan system to plan a lifetime or learning rather than a single three or four year course. This cultural change will take time, and needs to be embedded as a straightforward choice before we will see any major shifts in behaviour.

So, counter-intuitively, we need to build capacity in order to build demand. That is a bit Field of Dreams for my tastes – but for interventions where ministers decide how they want the world to work there are few other options. It’s clearly wasteful to build potentially unused capacity in every provider (and, in the cases of very small providers, largely impossible) so if we are building capacity it makes most sense to centralise.

The sector has a rich and storied history of spinning up agencies to help it do stuff that makes no sense to do individually. In the 60s this process generated UCCA, the forerunner of UCAS – centralising admissions while maintaining provider autonomy. And in the 90s it brought forth the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), putting academic quality and standards assurance on an independent and (eventually) respected footing (who in the 90s would have expected the sector to defend the QAA in such glowing terms?

The agency I am thinking about combines aspects of both these agencies – to the extent that it probably needs to be based in the south west of England to share access to a pool of expert staff. Let’s, for the sake of a name, call it the Lifelong Learning and Skills Agency (LLSA).

Do you want to build an agency?

The basic model would be that of a broker – in the same way that UCAS uses technology and information to match courses and applicants, LLSA would match existing credit and new courses. But, in more of the spirit of the QAA, there would be an element of academic and expert judgement.

An applicant, or an institution, or both, would approach LLSA with details of the existing credit held and the desired course. Using the available information (and potentially seeking more from whoever awarded the credit, or from the ridiculous amount of information at a modular level that HESA has), LLSA would come up with a recommendation as to the applicability of that credit to that course. This would then be communicated to the prospective learner and the place they might wish to learn, and entered into what would hopefully be a growing corpus of case law.

There’d need to be an appeals process in there somewhere, and it would make sense to give LLSA some related responsibilities too – I’d give it the brief to promote the LLE and credit transfer to providers and the public, and I’d see a research unit akin to the DfE’s Unit for Future Skills.

Not every credit transfer application would need to go through LLSA (we don’t want to mess, for instance, with existing articulation agreements) but the process would be straightforward and reliable enough that it would become the expected route. It would be independent of government – owned by the sector – and respected in the way it exercised academic judgement as guidance to providers and applicants.

Agencies, however, are expensive – both in terms of start up costs and ongoing costs. Longer term it should be self-funding in the same way UCAS is – a combination of a provider subscription based on levels of use, a small applicant fee, and ancillary commercial partnerships. In the short term, given that this is a government priority, it would seem reasonable to seek government pump-priming funding.

The alternative, it would seem, would be to allow credit transfer to continue to develop in a piecemeal manner, as it has for the past 30 years. Some providers (larger, and more vocationally based) would develop expertise in such processes while others would not – leading to a two-tier system that would see most transfers happening on access to just a few providers.

2 responses to “How do we solve a problem like credit transfer?

  1. Unfortunately this unwittingly demonstrates a large part of the problem. Almost everyone who writes about this subject (and researches it for that matter) has no practical experience and does not really grasp the issues. This is 90% correct which is better than most- in that it mentions learning level, volume of credit etc but confuses grade with learning outcomes as a significant barrier. Transferred credit can be just that- credit- without a grade. Restrictions are then applied to when credit can be transferred so that it does not affect the overall degree award.
    Learning outcomes are really the barrier as they are usually written so prescriptively they are incompatible with the learning outcomes (also prescriptive) of the potential incoming credit. If learning outcomes do not match, the credit cannot be transferred. The solution is to write LOs which are more flexible or create programmes where flexibility is inbuilt. This can be done although few people know how,
    The other issue- currency of credit is more easily resolved. Where l work we count anything within the past five years as current and it is transferred automatically. If it is older students are required to undertake a brief update, up to half the normal wordcount for the volume of credit. If the credit is for a vocational subject they can demonstrate how they have applied the learning, again with a word count of up to halve the normal for the volume of credit.
    As l said the major issue is a lack of understanding. Those with authority in education and hence the voices listened to do not understand this. The people who do understand it are largely practitioners who just get on and do it.

  2. There is more to credit transfer than this as explained in the DfE literature review (incidentally the link goes to findings on degree switching rathe than the literature review) where prior credit can be used for topping up, returning to learning and/or switching. I agree with Jon that grades often do not feature and LOs are more often taken into account but my many years involvement with CT at The Open University makes me wary of a suggested agency to try and broker CT but be more inclined to want fora for discussing and debating custom and practice as at the end of the day this is another one of those tricky academic judgements, as in all assessment and grading activities where rules and guidelines can only go so far but where monitoring, reflecting and sharing experiences will help, as far as practicable, ensure and assure parity and equity of decisions.

    It is also worth reading the literature reviews comments on the challenges to wider acceptance of CT. For the OU it was built into its curriculum design from the outset but it is harder to retro fit into other curriculum designs.

    The lit review is at:

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