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No government has ever achieved credit transfer in HE. Will it be different this time?

David Kernohan explains why repeated efforts to implement a credit transfer system have been unsuccessful
This article is more than 2 years old

Credit frameworks are a forlorn expression of the hope that all this learning that people do somehow links together.

That might, on the face of it, feel a little vague. This is because our use of credit as an idea may tend towards the theoretical rather than the practical, even as policy – emboldened by the seemingly unstoppable march of microcredentials – tends ever more concrete.

But it’s about to get very concrete indeed, because the success of the government’s proposed Lifetime Loan Entitlement, which is intended to allow people to access the equivalent of four years’ learning at different points in their lives, if it is not to act as essentially a straitjacket tying learners to a single location or institution, depends on the ease with which credit can be accumulated and transferred from one tertiary institution to another.

My way of thinking about the credit framework world is unashamedly stolen from a common, informed, perspective on much of higher education data. What we have is good enough for what we use it for, but there is very good reason to doubt that it is usable in ways that are sometimes proposed.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

What is credit and what is a credit framework?

Imagine you’ve just completed a course. It was a single module, usually offered to first year undergraduates at your local university in England. You got a good pass, and you are delighted with what you have learned – so much so that you are wondering about returning for more learning and an eventual qualification. Your question is – can I use this learning that I have already done to count towards this planned qualification?

The course you completed was worth “15 credits” at “level four”. The 15 credits mean that the learning you have done is equivalent to 150 notional hours of learning – which includes time spent in learning the lab, the lecture hall, the library, and your living room. The level four means that this learning was at a level of difficulty usually offered to people in the first year of their degree. None of this has anything to do with your grades – if you scraped a D you got 15 credits, just like you would if you aced an A.

If you wanted to top up to a certificate in higher education you’d want another 105 credits at level four. If you wanted a full-on honours degree you’d need another 345 credits, and while you could pick up more at level four and level five you would need at least 90 of these to be at level six.

Because we’re in higher education the levels stuff comes from the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland – in Scotland the slightly different Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework applies). The credits stuff (and the convention that one credit is equivalent to ten hours of learning) derives from the UK-wide Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS). CATS is widely used enough to be an accepted standard, but is not a requirement as things currently stand.

The promise of credit

Think back to the course you completed. You would perhaps imagine that as your study was worth 15 credits at level four, it could be counted against requirements for any course that you wanted to apply to – no matter the provider, system, or subject of study.

Indeed, because the UK is a signatory to the Bologna Process, which established a European Credit Transfer and Accumulation Scheme (ECTS) broadly compatible with UK credit, you might imagine that you could take your credit to any provider in Europe.

There’s a name for this idea – Accreditation of Prior Certified Learning (APCL). In some places it works quite well – for instance in the articulation agreements between colleges and universities in Scotland, or when dealing with large chunks of learning that are already qualifications in their own right – topping up a two year foundation degree to an honours degree by studying for an extra year is a good example here.

Where approaches like this work there are usually a few factors in place:

  • The route is established – either by lots of people doing it or by a specific agreement between two providers.
  • The provider you are bringing credit into already understands the nature and coverage of learning you have done, and how it compares to what is usually taught to their students – usually because efforts have been made to map the curriculum.
  • The provider you are bringing credit from is established, widely understood, and subject to common regulatory or professional requirements. In essence, it is much easier to move credit between two similar providers.
  • You are transferring credit to a course in a similar subject area to the one you are entering.

Outside of this, credit transfer is complex and arduous – for this reason it happens very rarely and usually with a financial cost. You would specify an area of the course you are applying to that you felt you had already covered, the provider you were applying for would work with you to ensure that your claim could be properly evidenced – using anything from transcripts and references to an exam or demonstration.

You can see why doing this at scale could cause a problem – it takes a lot of human expertise and resource. And while it might be tempting to write this off as unnecessary university bureaucracy, remember that universities are expected to protect the standards of their courses – and this includes testing the claim that someone is qualified to start one.

The political ideal

The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill currently under scrutiny in Westminster and which applies to English institutions dares to imagine the collection of credit at levels four to six from numerous providers in numerous subject areas. The detail of the bill currently only specifies that student finance may be allocated at the level of a module – a matter dealt with elsewhere on Wonkhe – but we are awaiting a government consultation on how credit accumulation and transfer would work in such a system.

Although the plumbing that enables credit transfer has been widely available for at least a decade, the use of these capabilities is very much the exception. And this has been noted by politicians – a call for evidence on credit transfer featured in Success as a Knowledge Economy (this resulted in a great report but very little activity), and there was a call to action in 2003’s The Future of Higher Education that also failed to move the dial appreciably. Even Dearing (1997) included a section on credit transfer that sketched out the forerunner of the modern FHEQ.

The launch of the QAA’s new credit framework in May 2021 reflected the new interest in the topic. Though the FHEQ is a required standard, the credit framework has the status of voluntary guidance that sits outside of the regulatory framework. What it does and how it does is entirely uncontroversial – it simply maps common qualifications to levels (FHEQ, SCQF, ECTS) and credit amounts (using the old CATS standard applied by the majority of higher education).

Arguably, while compliance remains optional (though you’d need a pretty good reason not to use it) widespread use of credit transfer – and thus the dream of lifelong learning – will remain just that.

What would make a difference is enshrining credit transfer in the English regulatory framework, and it needs to be compatible with systems of post compulsory education that students may choose to use, including elsewhere in the UK, in Europe, and globally. This will require a collaborative and consultative approach, especially where the four rapidly diverging systems in the UK are involved.

Getting there

As you may have read already, the QAA is putting the work in on microcredentials. Perhaps the most discussed element of the emerging post-16 skills system globally – these are short credit bearing courses with a discrete set of learning aims, that can (often) be “stacked” to contribute to larger qualifications. That single credit bearing module you did at the top of this piece? It could well have been a microcredential.

But other parts of this approach remain at the conceptual stage. We’re long overdue, for example, a properly accepted approach to APCL – and there’d also be a case to sharpen up the accreditation of prior experiential learning (APEL) to allow professional skills and work-based expertise to be recognised within larger awards.

We’re also a long way off bottoming out the way we treat level four to six vocational and other FE qualifications, and apprenticeships, as prior learning within higher education – beyond the way we treat them in the UCAS tariff for entry.

We also need to tackle the question of longevity. We might know how much your 15 credits at level four is worth now – how does that change if it was ten years ago, or referred to a professional standard that has since been superseded.

And this plays into the wider question of accounting for skills or domain expertise – I took my music technology qualification two decades ago. The state of the art kit I learned to use then is now prized ironically for its lofi, retro sound: but the fact that I know what a compressor is and how to apply it still has currency.

And I’ve studiously ignored the question of subject till now; but what does a level four qualification in plumbing, an abandoned masters in European literature, a smattering of modules and microcredentials in finance, drawing with charcoal, and marine cephalopod biology, and a six year old Google Certified Professional certificate actually add up to?

I mean, it might be 360 credits with 90 at level six, but is it an honours degree? What in? Awarded by whom? For some, the answer to these questions might matter less than what they can do with each qualification as they get them, but it’s hard to see how that’s the case for most.

Reality check

Surely by now we must be wondering about the demand for this kind of thing. After all, previous attempts at providing alternatives to traditional university education have not foundered due to a lack of government backing. Who wants to study in this piecemeal fashion?

The appeal to adult learners, reskilling or upgrading, is clear. There’s clearly a market for work-related and professional training that can be taken as need – although arguably the proposals to support this practice with SLC-style student loans doesn’t fit in as well with family and financial responsibility.

What is far from clear is how popular trading an early and established level six qualification in favour of a lifetime of just-in-time work-based learning would be to school leavers. Something very odd would have to happen to see young people (and their parents) forgo what has become a right of passage for more than half of the population. The Treasury impetus for this shift is clear, but given the history here it does look a lot like wishful thinking.

This article is published as part of a series produced in association with KPMG. Unless otherwise indicated the views are those of the author not of KPMG.

5 responses to “No government has ever achieved credit transfer in HE. Will it be different this time?

  1. US HEPs have a well established, well used and implicitly understood (from the student’s perspective) credit transfer system. LIberal arts gen Ed requirements which means if you switch institutions and degree programmes you can still make progress, community college to 4 year state school pipeline, an assumed consistency of quality and student awareness of this entitlement.

    In the U.K. many quality folk suggest credit transfer doesn’t work and there is no appetite for it. What they do not wrestle with is the idea that it does work for US HEPs but how political, quality, current university curriculum models complexities make this unfeasible.

    1. I’m pretty sure UK quality folk are aware that this does work in the US, they’re just also aware of the other fundamental differences between UK and US HE, in particular the UK primary focus on the linear single subject model – rather than something broader based and interdisciplinary – and the on programme coherence rather than individual modules.

      Adapting to the US approach would likely require an enormous overhaul of UK HE – and also A Levels, given their narrow focus.

      Otherwise, doing this on a subject specific scale would require much closer alignment of subject curricula and content (national curriculums).

  2. Credit transfer works in the US for a couple of reasons. First, states often require institutions under its control to accept credits from each other, no questions asked. Second, US degrees are largely accumulations of credits from here and there. They can be done independently from different institutions because they were never designed to fit together. Majors or degree subjects only constitute about a third of US degrees. This also results in lack of coherence and students rarely finish their degrees on time. There are lot of reasons to worry about credit transfer without sufficient planning and oversight, especially in a more diverse market of providers.

  3. The points David highlights are mostly true in the US, at least in my experience. You still have to have the right combination of courses to get a degree from most institutions, even if it’s a mix. When I studied 20 years ago, it was also at the discretion of the university to accept credit transfer.

    Credit transfer/APL was something that came up with some regularity in health, which has a high level of mature/returner interest. Issues around meeting NMC/HCPC guidelines but obviously, HEIs wanted to get trained professionals out into the workforce. Same courses taught in different ways at different HEIs, which made it hard to support switching and/or resumption at another HEI.

    A degree serves as a proxy for an amount of successful study between a graduate and (mainly) an employer. It always struck me that maybe another proxy is needed, so students who drop out or study in a piecemeal sort of way still get something for their investment. Doesn’t have to be a full award, but has to be something employers understand.

  4. Lydia’s final paragraph makes an important point around employer understanding, but students also need to fully understand the implications. In the past, here in the UK, these sorts of routes have often been referred to, pejoratively, as pick & mix degrees with little or no value to most: employers, students, professional and regulatory bodies. David’s example highlights the challenges where there is little coherence in what skills, knowledge and understanding such a mix actually provides, and can be reasonably articulated to interested parties.

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