CATS needs cradling - by academics

May 23, 1997

THE EDITOR of The THES has wisely identified credit accumulation and transfer (CATS) as one of the keys to the future development of higher education, and one with profound implications. It has been a long time coming. The Council for National Academic Awards was developing a nationwide system when it was wound up in 1993, and David Robertson published his seminal report Choosing to Change over three years ago. But there has been progress since then, particularly in the two consortia of northern and southern universities, and perhaps after Dearing further progress can be rapid.

Credit-based systems go with the grain of developments in higher education. The widespread adoption of modular courses allows the relatively easy mapping of credits. The changing student composition also points in the same direction, with an increasing number of part-time students and students who wish to take higher education in bite-sized chunks building up to a qualification over time. For such developments to be taken to their conclusion, and to deliver their full potential, then a fully blown credit accumulation (and preferably transfer) system is needed, on which funding can be based.

The distinction is important. A credit-based qualification system could be applied at institutional level: a specified number of credits may be required to obtain a qualification, each module contributing a specified number of credits. A credit- transfer system allows students to carry credits from one institution to another, building up a degree from a number of sources. This is rare, even in the United States where credit systems are widespread, and might require an unacceptable standardisation of course content. However, it is not necessary for the main benefits of credit-based systems to be enjoyed.

The funding councils have an interest, particularly in the funding implications of such developments. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is introducing a new funding method from 1998-99, though we will need to take stock after the report of the Dearing inquiry. The new method will fund similar activities at similar rates, but it recognises that in a year, or even within a course, a student may take components of different kinds (and in particular some which are high cost and some lower cost), and it funds each discretely. With a common system of academic credits (where each course, module or sub-module attracted a certain number of credits), then the method could be easily adapted and funding attached to credits at different rates. In the absence of credits, the method uses as a proxy the proportion of a year of study taken at different funding rates.

As the funding method is conceived, there is no need for any distinction between full-time and part-time students, because it is the activity and the degree of intensity of the activity that is being funded. However, because the Government currently applies different tuition fee regimes to full-time and part-time students, it will not be possible to dispense with the distinction altogether. It would take a change in the present arrangements for student fees to achieve this - the introduction of credit-based funding alone will not do the trick.

As acknowledged in last week's editorial, the widespread adoption of credit-based qualifications would allow us to refine funding further to match provision. Accompanied by changes to the fee regime, the removal of the distinction between full-time and part-time, the serious espousal of lifelong learning (with students taking different components of higher education at different times in their lives), and a different relationship between state and private funding (with the state perhaps providing only part of the cost of all of the higher education taken by individuals throughout their lives), higher education would have freedom to respond better to the needs of the individual and the country.

Hefce's new funding method is sufficiently flexible to be able to accommodate such changes, but the effects would be profound. The leader in last week's THES correctly enumerated some of these. Some credits could be more highly valued than others; some could be paid by the state and others not; and some could be compulsory. It would not require a fully blown credit-based system to enable these changes - some progress could be made with the funding of modules - but credits would make the funding regime more consistent.

Desirable though the development of credit accumulation and transfer systems would be, it would be wrong for administrative convenience to drive this.CATS must be for the academic community to agree and implement.

However, the benefits are real and substantial, and if Dearing gives a lead in this direction it should provide the stimulus required to make rapid progress.

Bahram Bekhradnia is head of policy for the Higher Education Funding Council for England. He writes in a personal capacity.

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