“Snobbery” among universities is stopping students from poorer backgrounds gaining degrees using credits accumulated at other institutions, according to a leading educationalist.
Calling for a national structure that enables students to transfer credits between different courses and universities, Sir David Watson, principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford, says the UK should adopt the “much messier system” of university admissions used in the US.
In a report for the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, titled Credit Risk? Reviving Credit Accumulation and Transfer in UK Higher Education, Sir David says that a third of all students in the US transfer institutions before graduating, taking their marks with them to their new university.
Such transfers are equally common among Ivy League students as they are for those from less prestigious universities.
In contrast, UK universities insist that almost all students are enrolled via the so-called “royal route”, in which they must enter the first year of an undergraduate course regardless of their prior experience of higher education, generally holding a number of strong post-16 qualifications, he says.
Universities positioned higher up the “institutional reputation ladder” in the UK are more reluctant to recognise learning elsewhere, part of a damaging “institutional protectionism”, warns Sir David, who is professor of higher education at Oxford.
About 43,000 students entered the first year of a full-time undergraduate course in the UK in 2011-12 having already studied for a higher education qualification, although there are no data to clarify how many used prior credits towards their degree, says the report, published on 22 November.
Sir David says the sector’s use of credit transfer was “feeble”, adding that “conservatism, snobbery and lack of imagination” prevented its wider use. “The lack of an effective credit framework inhibits the UK’s progress towards a genuinely lifelong learning society, a goal increasingly recognised as important for social, cultural and economic reasons,” he notes.
The lack of a thriving credit transfer system, which operates successfully in many parts of Europe, was “arguably the most serious single piece of unfinished business in UK higher education”, he adds.
Changing course curricula to include credit transfer poses several risks and problems, but these could be overcome, suggests Sir David, a member of the Dearing report committee, which called for credit transfer in 1997.
Students might enrol on a less popular course to gain access to a different course later on, known as the “Trojan horse” ploy, he explains.
However, without an effective credit transfer framework, universities will not be able to recruit large numbers of adults who are unwilling to commit themselves to a long stretch of full-time education.
Adopting this scheme “will mean taking widening participation seriously rather than just pretending that the traditional ‘royal route’ will suddenly open up for new types of student”, Sir David advises.