University schemes allowing students to skip up to two-thirds of their degree courses by paying to have their work experience and even hobbies turned into academic credits are facing a clampdown by quality watchdogs.
The Quality Assurance Agency issued draft guidelines on the accreditation of prior experiential learning (Apel) this week, a system under which some universities allow students to turn their "leisure activities" and even time "working at Tesco" into credits to offset formal teaching.
The Times Higher reported widespread concerns about potential abuses of the practice last summer, with academics reporting large variations in the fees charged by universities to assess students' experiences, the assessment techniques used, and the amount of credit students are able to claim for past experience. Some universities allowed up to two-thirds of courses to be written off.
The new draft guidelines warn: "Public confidence in the accreditation of prior learning, comparable to that for learning achieved during more traditional teaching and learning activities, is important if the practice is to be sustained and develop."
The guidelines, which are out for consultation, were published as the professor who led a government-funded task group on Apel in 2000 said he had "lost confidence" in some Apel schemes.
David Robertson, professor of higher education at Liverpool John Moores University, said: "There is some radical and interesting practice, but sloppy, fly-by-night practice does go on. Institutions can earn money from it, so there is an incentive to cut corners."
Professor Robertson's 2000 survey, written with the Learning from Experience Trust, found that universities were charging up to £60 an hour to assess students' experience.
Professor Robertson joked: "There are those who think drawing breath should count as credit towards a BSc in physiology, or watching telly should earn you credit towards a media studies degree. If it's the rugby you watch, it might count towards sports science, too - but you'll need to watch all three games and critically reflect on them."
One university website says that "working at Tesco" could in theory gain students 60 credits towards a 360-credit degree course, and another cites working as a lifeguard as a valid step toward a degree in sports science.
The new QAA guidelines say the experience itself is not enough to earn credit -students must show that they have learnt from it and that the learning is "equivalent to that achieved by students on the programme or module. Higher education providers may need to consider whether decisions about equivalence require evidence of an exact and complete match of the learning outcomes that would otherwise need to be demonstrated during a traditional assessment process."
INSIGHT FROM EXPERIENCE IS WHAT MATTERS
* The Learning from Experience Trust, based at Goldsmiths College, University of London, says: "Learning is like breathingI. Some of this learning is deliberate and planned, and some simply the result of our experience."
* Question-and-answer guidelines on accreditation of prior experiential learning (Apel) from Liverpool John Moores University say: "Question: My friend got 60 credits for working at Tesco. I've also worked there. Can I claim 60 credits, too?
"Answer: That may be the case. However, it is important to note that we do not award credit for experience, but for learning from that experience... Assessment involves an academic member of staff (judging) whether you have met the criteria for the award of credit."
* Question-and-answer guidelines from the University of Central Lancashire, say: "Making an Apel claim can certainly cut down on the time it takes to achieve an award... Submitting a claim through Apel does require commitment, motivation and hard work.
"You will need to become used to reflecting on your experience and thinking about it in an 'academic' way - relating to academic theory for instance."