Academics keep CAT in the bag

July 21, 1995

Universities, colleges and professional bodies are reluctant to pull the wide array of credit accumulation and transfer systems across further and higher education into a unified framework with a single currency, a quality council report says.

Arguments for the development of a national CAT scheme based on a system which has growing support in FE were dismissed by most of the 146 institutions and organisations which responded to the discussion paper Choosing to Change, published by the Higher Education Quality Council last year.

A report on the responses, issued by the HEQC last week, says other recommendations including the establishment of a two-year associate degree and educational vouchers also proved unpopular.

David Robertson, head of the policy and development department at Liverpool John Moores University and director of the Choosing To Change project, is not disheartened despite this reaction to some of his more radical ideas.

An unfavourable response from higher education to proposals for an associate degree was "predictable", while there was encouraging general support for more consistency and portability of credit across FE and HE, and a greater willingness to contemplate vouchers than expected, he says.

Choosing to Change is recognised as an important and timely report, though its sheer size (360 pages) had many respondents reaching for the executive summary in an effort to focus their attention on the headline issues. Its length serves to illustrate the scope of its concerns, spanning funding, quality assurance and qualifications, while engaging in a comprehensive review of CAT systems.

It also shows that the need for workable CAT systems to improve flexibility of provision and help student mobility has become a central rather than a secondary issue for many universities and colleges. For Professor Robertson, it is part of a move towards a more student centred system with more progression routes and flexible learning: hence the proposal for a new interim academic qualification (the associate degree) and vouchers.

While most respondents also saw the recommendations in a context of growth in modularity and credit schemes, the debate on semesters, accelerated routes and admissions, there was more support for maintaining the status quo than for radical change.

On credit accumulation and transfer, there was weak support for the convergence of existing CAT systems and the development of a common unitary credit currency, based on 30 hours of notional student learning time per unit.

CAT schemes are a growth industry in FE and HE, with regional systems growing up around the models developed by the former Further Education Unit and by the Council for National Academic Awards. The problem is, the systems are not very compatible. Since most respondents were from HE, they preferred the CNAA system based on a 120-credit year. They were against a single-credit currency, preferring the use of conversion factors for movement between systems.

The report says: "There is enthusiasm neither for a centrally imposed unitary system of credit overseen by a central bureaucracy, nor for the complete reorganisation of higher education along credit based lines. But there is support for the emergence by means of alignment or articulation for an agreed unified system."

Professor Robertson's preferred proposals for a two-year associate degree which could also attract dual accreditation as a higher level General National Vocational Qualification in some subjects proved less popular. Only 7 per cent of respondents wanted an associate degree, many feeling it would become a second-class route and might encourage the Government to limit undergraduate funding to two years. There was uncertainty over the need for higher level GNVQs and their status - 5 per cent supported joint accreditation.

There were equal reservations about credit-based education vouchers for students. Worries about financial and course planning and red tape left only 7 per cent favouring them. There was more support for a credit based formula for institutional funding with around two-thirds gave qualified support.

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