Pick'n'mix not so sweet

Many years ago, Frank Burnet fought for modularisation and credit transfer. The war was won, but victory was pyrrhic

November 6, 2008

The most traumatic year in my academic life was 1991, when I made the mistake of becoming the person responsible for getting my colleagues at Kent to embrace modularisation and credit accumulation and transfer.

I volunteered because I wanted to encourage adults to get a degree by making it possible for them to design a programme that matched their needs and allowed them to move between universities if necessary. Looking back, I think it might have been easier to have championed the installation of a statue of Margaret Thatcher outside the student union.

The proposal had the rare power to annoy everybody. The humanities faculty was apoplectic because "cafeteria-style" degrees would destroy its mystical power to influence the young minds of the next generation of sages, while rarely meeting them.

Scientists got themselves in a lather about students having some say in the order in which they learnt things and muttered darkly that it could all lead to them being tempted to commit the heinous crime of mixing science with another discipline.

I kept encountering a story about a molecular biologist who opted to spend a year at a university in California and had been deflected from his true calling into drug-driven self-destruction by taking an optional ceramics module.

Even more fraught was the question of how much academic credit a particular module was worth. Everybody had their own formula, usually based on the hours spent studying, although it was never easy to agree how much of this time needed to be spent in the presence of an academic and how much could be spent in the pub studying privately.

Nor was it easy to decide whether different kinds of face-to-face experience merited a different number of points. Was an hour spent sipping sherry with a Royal Society fellow worth the same as three hours in a practical laboratory inhaling toxic vapours in the company of one of his postgraduate students?

And what about degree of difficulty? Should a first-year module designed to force students to locate the library be worth as much credit as a challenging final-year module on "Patagonian pre-history and its implications"?

All these discussions were held against a backdrop of scarcely concealed academic snobbery, which gave rise to a fear that august and ancient institutions would be besieged by students from lesser universities (and even polytechnics) demanding to know the exchange rate for their academic currency.

They needn't have worried. It's nearly 20 years since I made a lonely stand on the ramparts of the registry, and the percentage of students using credit transfer to move between universities is tiny. It turns out that most students are not free spirits straining to move to wherever their intellect leads but rather young people building social networks in one carefully selected location.

And they needn't have worried about the pick'n'mixers either because students are the end product of an educational system that forces them to see themselves as specialists long before they end up at university.

In fact, I have often wondered how long it will be before children in primary school are obliged to choose between specialising in reading or writing. My own experience has been that few things upset students more than the suggestion that it might be necessary to venture a few metres outside their specialist field.

Looking back, the failure of modularisation and the credit accumulation and transfer scheme to increase the flexibility and accessibility of higher education is not just about the attitudes and preferences of students or staff. It has a great deal to do with the unwillingness of successive governments to find a model for supporting students that doesn't grossly discriminate against those who wish to study part time.

Many of these potential students are referred to as "mature", and it is their cause that I, and many others, began fighting for 20 years ago. It is ironic that although we did eventually win our battle to put the mechanisms in place, the victory has been pyrrhic because the people who would make most use of them can rarely afford to do so.

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