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Credit transfers are great - but making them easy to manage will be hard

Interesting reading this morning was Ant Bagshaw's article in WonkHE about Jo Johnson's encouragement for a more effective credit transfer system for Higher Education.

In case you were unaware, a credit transfer system is the means by which you can study a course in one institution, and accumulate 'credits' from that course.  You can then transfer those credits to another institution and apply them to a course there.

It's a great idea - it means that higher education can be studied more flexibly.  You can begin your degree in Lincoln, and should you then find yourself having to move house to Glasgow you can simply transfer your credits over and carry on studying.  One of the many benefits of an effective credit transfer is that it emphasises the extent to which Higher Education is seen as a cohesive whole within the UK, and how the national qualification for the UK nations align effectively with each other.  At the same time, things like the Bologna process and the European Higher Education Area it is easier than ever to establish equivalence with qualifications across Europe, making the accreditation of prior learning easier to manage.

The trouble is, right now it is not very good.  I mean, the idea is great and all that, but it often feels like one of those 'awkward-parts-of-the-job-that-nobody-really-understands-quite-how-it-works-so-best-to-just-not-mention-it-for-the-sake-of-a-quiet-life'.

So the funny thing about credit transfers then, and the accreditation of prior learning (APL), is that very few people seem to know about it.  Many people applying for courses don't seem to know about it, and those that do often end up asking somebody who looks blankly at them before referring them to somebody else - usually one who is impossible to contact.  If they do manage to get hold of that person, then there is a lot of ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ as they desperately track through their institutional regulations to find out what, exactly, their policy on APL is:

  1. How many credits worth are allowed?
  2. Can they transfer over an entire level or not?
  3. Do the credits they bring with them have to map EXACTLY across to the learning outcomes of their new course?

The first two parts here are difficult enough.  After all, because different Higher Education Institutions all have different regulations about APL, an applicant might have been told by one institution that it is perfectly possible to transfer over the whole of a level - only to discover from another institution that they only allow a certain percentage of a whole level to be transferred.  Now this is fixable, and perhaps this is something Johnson might be looking at.  There is no reason why APL regulations cannot be more standardised across different institutions in the UK, and this certainly seems to be the root of the recommendations made by the Higher Education Academy in their 2013 report.

It is the third bit though, that I suspect might be the biggest problem.  Because while the idea of being able to transfer credits over from one course to another sounds great - in practice it is actually very complicated.  If, for example, I decide to stop studying my Chemistry degree in Lincoln and and move over to Glasgow, there is no guarantee that the modules on my degree at Lincoln will be the same as those at Glasgow.  There might be essential learning which I had not yet covered at Lincoln, but which may have already been covered at Glasgow.  There may be modules on the degree at Glasgow that don’t even have an equivalent at Lincoln.

All this means that in order for me to transfer my credits from one institution to another, I need to have entire bespoke schedule set up for me: One that may well involve me studying two level 4 modules and two level 5 modules in the first semester (although the institution regulations might prohibit this), or maybe only 90 credits in the first year, or any one of a number of varied patterns of study.

This bespoke schedule needs to be carefully mapped against Programme Learning outcomes, and against module pre-requisites.  So it takes a long time to sort.  And it is complicated.  And it can cause all sorts of headaches with finance.  And it can extent the overall length of study.  Which can create even more headaches with finance.

It is little wonder then that while institutions generally love the idea in practice the whole thing feels like a bit of a mess.  And it is little wonder too, that when applicants get to understand something of the complexities of APL, many of them come to the conclusion that it would be simpler and easier not to bother.

Developing mechanisms by which these messy processes can be made easier probably involves a significant re-think about course structures and delivery.

Credit transfer is a brilliant idea that increases participation.  To make it work though, I hope there will be recognition that we need to do more than simply standardise a regulatory approach to it.

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