Credit transfer is flexible, but the cost is daunting.
Last year's report by Professor David Robertson, Choosing to Change -- Extending access, choice and mobility in higher education, is arguably the most detailed analysis yet of credit accumulation and transfer systems. Although such systems demand a sophisticated administration and meticulous record keeping, the idea of credit "accumulation" is clearly proving practicable as increasing numbers of students graduate from CATS courses.
Credit accumulation programmes are changing traditional degree patterns. The idea of completing a degree immediately after school is being replaced by an awareness of flexible ways of accumulating degree-level credit. The once-and-for-all "finals" at the end of a three-year course are being replaced by continuous assessment.
Credit accumulation seems here to stay, mirroring a system long recognised in the United States as providing optimum fairness and equality of opportunity. Although credit "accumulation" is with us, the "transfer" part of CATS is still in its early stages, yet in terms of its potential social consequences, is equally important.
Credit transfer involves a student gaining credit at one institution and being allowed to use it towards an academic award at another. The credit may consist of one or more modules of study, or even an entire qualification. For example, a student who has gained a postgraduate certificate may transfer it as part of a masters degree at another university. This can take place within a single institution, and the idea of a student changing courses is not new.
In intra-institutional transfer, a modular credit system simply places student course transfer on a more rational basis. Many degrees have some modules in common. A degree in marketing and a degree in economics may include an "introduction to statistics" module, and credit transfer becomes a straightforward administrative matter.
Inter-institutional transfer is more complex, because judgements must be made about the comparability of the curriculums. The "introduction to statistics" in one university may have a different content to that in another. This type of credit transfer is achieved using the concept of the academic "tariff".
If the content and level provided by the "donor" institution are comparable, the recipient institution provides a credit rating for the module. The quantitative credit rating is the tariff for that particular module on that particular course at the recipient university.
If the comparison was made with a different course at the recipient, then the tariff may be a smaller number of credits if the curriculum in that case was less comparable. It is important therefore, to realise that a specific module cannot have a universal tariff for transfer to any university. Nevertheless, the advantages of credit transfer remain significant. A three or four-year degree course is a long time and many things may happen to a student, causing a need to move the place of study.
Credit transfer also offers enormous social advantages for overseas students, who may have the pressure of leaving family and friends for one or two years to gain an award unavailable in their own country. A form of credit transfer offers a way to reduce the period of study in this country.
If the student has any educational experience comparable with modules on a course then a portfolio of evidence can be submitted to the institution. This work can be credit-rated and if credit is awarded, then this may result in a much shorter stay in this country.
Credit transfer offers enormous potential for cost-effective use of resources. In many urban areas, a number of universities are located within easy travelling distance of each other. Normally, they would each support departments in the main subject areas.
It might be argued that it is inefficient to maintain many departments in all the main subject areas and to maintain many departments in a single subject with an apparent duplication of staff, academic resources and equipment.
The alternative would be for institutions to specialise in certain subject areas, and to become recognised for their teaching and research in those areas. In some cases, students would attend modules at two or three different universities in a consortium to accumulate credits. The degree would be administered by one institution with credits from the other courses transferred to the administering university.
Perhaps the learning experience for a student would be anonymous with no sense of "belonging" of or getting to know tutors or fellow students. Nevertheless, with calls to teach more students within a diminishing resource base, the credit transfer model may seem appealing.
Flexibility is further emphasised by the possibility of transferring credit from non-higher education institutions to a university. The increasing number of franchised degree courses in further education colleges provides the opportunity for students to study part of a franchised degree and then to transfer to university.
Another model of transfer involves accrediting in-company training courses in industry, or programmes of in-service training in schools and colleges. In both cases, staff training courses are given a credit-rating by the university and staff who complete such courses can transfer the credit towards a degree or diploma at the accrediting university.
There will need to be some form of efficient electronic database to record and communicate credit tariffs. At the moment, a student could take the credit transcript to another university and request credit for those modules. If the recipient university had not previously tariffed those modules, then an assessment of curriculum comparability would have to be made before the credit could be transferred.
The problem is that a module or modules from a single donor institution may be given different credit tariffs by different recipient universities. If we think of this complexity in terms of the number of different modules within, say, European Union universities, we can envisage the scale of the task of constructing a central database of tariffs. If we further build into the equation the evolving nature of the higher education curriculum, we can see that tariffs can never be fixed entities.
It would be comforting to offer a commonsense solution, but CATS are hyper-rational and hyper-logical. Their virtues of clarity and precision can result in daunting administrative complexities. If credit transfer is to become commonplace, then the problem of the rapidly-escalating number of tariffs must be somehow resolved.
Paul Oliver is senior lecturer in the school of education at the University of Huddersfield.