One of the proposed new conditions in the list being consulted on by the Department for Education requires universities to publish their arrangements for student transfer with credit. Some may argue this proposed new mandatory requirement goes beyond the legal ‘duty to monitor’ set out in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. Others may worry that higher ranked universities may seek to use this mechanism as an opportunity to tempt students to “trade up” as they progress through their studies.
However, a research project conducted by a consortium of seven higher education providers led by the University of Sheffield found that students believe there is a need for clearer and more transparent processes, information, advice and guidance on student mobility from higher education providers, and from the sector as a whole.
What’s the issue?
The new report, Should I stay, or should I go? Student demand for credit transfer and recommendations for policy and practice, finds that the new duty may be appropriate if seen in the context of student support rather than as a switching mechanism for recruitment purposes.
The Yorkshire Universities and White Rose University Consortium, supported by HEFCE, examined student perceptions about mobility and credit transfer. They collected quantitative and qualitative data from a diverse sample of 2,475 students across seven institutions, and examined HESA data on student movement from participating institution. They also spoke to 81 staff with learning and teaching leadership responsibilities.
Between 0.02% and 0.6% of students who withdrew from the institutions involved subsequently returned to higher education. There was no evidence of trading up – indeed 94% of non-Russell Group students who transferred resumed their studies at another non-Russell Group University. Most returning students took up their studies at the point they left off (83%), and transferred to a different region of the country (75%, 45% being students who returned to their “home” region after studying elsewhere).
The number of students who foresee they might want to move is very small – there was no evidence of latent demand – and students do not see the ability to move with credit as an opportunity to trade-up or to move as a consumer might when changing their bank.
Overall, the report calls for the Office for Students to approach this new duty from a student-focused perspective, with the view that higher education providers could do more to facilitate transfers where the need arises.
According to the study, students see mobility as a student welfare matter; if a student realises they may need to change not only a course but an institution the current support offered by universities across the sector is seen as limited. Students who need to switch universities mid-course do so largely for personal reasons, so this move needs to be as frictionless as possible to prevent them dropping out of their studies altogether.
Student feedback claimed that better arrangements could help a student move to a new location or university more suited to their changed needs, rather than dropping out of HE or having to start again on a new programme in a different place. Currently students fear transferring to another university will be difficult, will devalue their degree, and make them look unreliable, with academic staff also expressing concerns about the intellectual integrity of a degree ‘broken’ across locations.
The report makes several recommendations to better help students in need.
These include universities locating the issue of student mobility and credit transfer within student support, welfare, advice and guidance rather than treating it as a student recruitment activity, with independent and impartial advice services to help students identify when transfer to another provider is the right decision for them.
The study also recommended that universities provide support networks and mentoring to facilitate a smooth transition. Greater transparency and clearly available information on university websites about the option of credit transfer should accompany this.
When credit transfer may be suitable for an individual student clear specific guidance should be offered, including details of what disciplines or courses students may be able to transfer to and from. This will help students make informed choices about how and when to move, if the need arises and make clear to them any prerequisites or required prior learning.
Given the circumstances that may drive a need to move, the study also calls for the OfS to allow providers in their Access and Participation Agreements to support widening participation students to relocate if needed and to provide help with the financial implications, which could otherwise create barriers to fair participation and access.
Better credit transfer supports the goals of students, institutions and the sector – making it easier for education to continue when other aspects of life get in the way. Clearly no-one’s interests are served when students who have the academic potential to gain a qualification are unable to do so because of external issues.
It’s important the Government, universities and sector bodies work together to make moving higher education provider frictionless for those who need to move, and to change perceptions among students and employers so degrees awarded by accumulation of credits from different universities are not seen as of lesser value than a degree awarded by a single university.
This new report aims to begin challenging these perceptions and makes important recommendations to universities and the Government on how we can better meet the pastoral needs of students on this important issue.