A new funding system based on learning credits could break down distinctions between full-time and part-time students
The building blocks for a nationwide higher education credit system will be in place by the time Sir Ron Dearing's committee reports in July.
The Department for Education and Employment has set up a project to stitch together major schemes in the north and south of England and Wales, which could be matched with another in Scotland and an emerging system in Northern Ireland.
The Inter-Consortium Credit Agreements project (INCA) was set up last October to create a common educational currency to enable students to move freely between courses and accumulate credit for what they have achieved.
Credit systems have been around a long time, but rapid expansion, more modular courses, competition and the break up of the Council for National Academic Awards have created a wide variety of credit "currencies".
David Robertson, in his report Choosing to Change, published by the Higher Education Quality Council in 1994, said there was a mismatch between credit systems in further and higher education, as well as a credit transfer problem with the National Council for Vocational Qualifications' system which operated separately. He recommended a move towards a common system based on a scheme devised by the former Further Education Unit.
But now higher education institutions have developed their own systems, and are more inclined to expect further education to fit in with them, rather than the other way around. Common definitions and ways of using credit have been developed by the South East of England Consortium, the Northern Universities Consortium, the Higher Education Credit Initiative Wales and the Scottish Credit Accumulation and Transfer consortium. All are working to unify their arrangements.
The idea of linking credits to funding was first put into practice by the Welsh funding councils, but picked up by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
In its November 1995 consultation paper on a funding method for teaching, HEFCE proposed to invite institutions to map their provision on to a notional unit system, similar in concept to most credit systems. The aim was to create a more sensitive and flexible funding scheme.
The Welsh councils might be considered one step ahead in linking credit to funding. They have already made the connection for continuing education, and plan to extend this to all part-time provision from next year. Under the system, institutions give course modules a credit rating which is multiplied by enrolments to a course to produce a "modular credit" value used to guide funding decisions. Institutions are asked to work out credit ratings according to the work involved in a module.
The credit scheme embraces all Welsh institutions, and links to an FE credit framework. It treats each credit as an award in itself, rather than only valuing the accumulation of 240 credits or more.
Forty universities and colleges take part in the South East of England Consortium, which also has links with the Welsh, Northern and Scottish schemes. SEEC has joined up with the Welsh system to develop definitions of levels.
The Northern Universities Consortium is the newest alliance, involving 34 universities in the north and the Midlands, and two in Ulster. Its credit system closely matches that of the SEEC. The northern consortium is responsible under the INCA project for developing a national credit rating.