Credit funding is here, but so are its drawbacks

July 4, 1997

Roger Brown believes the arguments for changing funding are strong, but some critical issues must be resolved before they are accepted

Funding by credit is now seriously on the policy agenda. The arguments for giving it consideration are not new, but the discussion has been given added impetus by the renewed desire to expand access to higher education and to create a greater degree of equity in funding. And it is no longer an abstract discussion: the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales has been funding continuing education on a credit basis since September 1995, and the mainstream part-time courses will be similarly funded from the start of the next academic year.

The essence of the case in favour was stated by David Robertson in the relevant key recommendation of the report of Higher Education Quality Council's Credit Accumulation and Transfer (CAT) system's development project: "Existing arrangements inhibit student choice and provide no incentive for institutions to respond more flexibly. They are irrational in places and possibly unfair in others, both for institutions and for students."

The report recommended that credit-based funding should be the organising arrangement for allocating funds, that students should have rights through a system of credit-led educational vouchers, and that all tuition fees and maintenance elements should be fully portable.

There is no doubt that the theoretical case in favour of this method of funding is a strong one. But before we move too far down this route we need to give further thought to some of the issues which it raises.

In a recent Personal View, Bahram Bekhradnia (THES, May 23) said: "Desirable though the development of CAT systems would be, it would be wrong for administrative convenience to drive this. CATs must be for the academic community to agree and implement."

This echoes the statement made by the then higher education minister, Tim Boswell, in 1994: "The structure of higher education courses and qualifications are for the academic community and institution to determine. They are not for government."

This is where worries start to arise. As a forthcoming HEQC publication, Credit in higher education: A review and position paper, will show, there has been a good deal of progress in extending and harmonising CAT systems in recent years. Nevertheless, some major and difficult issues remain, including articulation between academic and other awards, and the definition of levels of assessed learning. Some of these are being addressed by the Inter Consortium Credit Agreement project.

Even so, not all institutions will wish to introduce CAT schemes. And even among those that do, or have, there remain great variations of practice. It must be doubtful whether this can be resolved ahead of agreement on a national qualifications framework, as recommended in HEQC's graduate standards programme, and even then there will remain the issue of how much freedom institutions should have to vary the requirements associated with their own awards or credits. But without such a framework, linked to levels and credits frameworks, it is hard to see how credit-based funding can operate.

One aspect of this institutional diversity concerns the number of credits per level required to gain an award. Thus, although 120 credits for each of the three undergraduate years, at levels 1, 2 and 3 respectively, represents the "basic" model, institutional assessment regulations often allow for different combinations of credits at each level to obtain a degree. Moreover, such combinations may differ from one university to the next. This is particularly apparent as regards the minimum number of credits required at level 3. This diversity has a direct relevance to the comparability of degree standards. While some data on such diversity exists, a more comprehensive mapping of practice may be required.

There are a number of further difficulties. Who owns the relevant database by unit, module or programme? Who ensures that it is accurate and robust? If HESA, do the current "credit fields" of information require changing? If funding follows students, what are the implications for stability of institutional funding? How quickly can students be tracked? How should resources be transferred between institutions?

At present a three-year course leading to an honours degree in, say, physics, varies considerably between institutions in terms of actual or notional hours. Hence the credit allocated, and so claimed, in any credit-based funding system will vary. The end result could be credit inflation as each institution seeks to maximise its income. This could lead to imposed controls or ranges, further avoidance activity, and so on. Finally, without a national higher education curriculum or even a standard academic year, how does the funding agency cap what could become an open-ended funding commitment?

Notional time is a theoretical construct to ensure that curriculum designers give consideration to the effort required from students to achieve the learning objectives or outcomes for the module or programme concerned. A recent HEQC survey reveals that notional hours range from 900-960 (about one-third of cases) to, most commonly, 1,200 (just over half). One in 10 institutions used 1,080 hours with the remainder outside the 900-1,200 hour range.

I recognise that a good deal depends upon what kind of credit-based funding system is being envisaged. There are already strong concerns about increased pressures from ungrateful and sometimes litigious students; about interference with institutional academic autonomy; about the limits which existing funding and accreditation policies place on diversity of mission; and about excessive bureaucracy, information requirements and regulation. At the same time, nearly everyone wants to see increased access and equity in funding. Is credit-based funding really the solution?

Roger Brown is chief executiveof the Higher EducationQuality Council. He writes in a personal capacity.

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/THE TIMES 7JJULY 4J1997 SHANE McGOWAN

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