The Case Against Unlimited Credit Transfer (A Response to the HE White Paper)

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Dr Emma Kennedy on why transferring institutions isn't the benign injection of choice that the White Paper claims.

The White Paper published on 15th May by the Department for Business, Information and Skills, entitled “Success as a Knowledge Economy”, sets out a number of changes that the Government envisions making to the HE sector in the next few years and beyond. I’m not going to go into all of them here, but I want to look at a particular change envisioned by BIS here. They want to make it easier for students to transfer universities in the middle of their degrees, and to carry credit with them. In the words of the report:

if the option of transferring were more available, then it would be to the benefit of students who might otherwise have dropped out […]The ability of students to accumulate credits which are transferable to other courses and institutions is central to this vision. We want to gather evidence on how credit transfer in particular can help enable flexible and lifetime learning, and drive up quality by giving students more choice.

Flexibility is no bad thing, and the reduction in financial penalties for students whose circumstances change is to be welcomed. However, if we look closely at the mechanism envisioned by BIS, we can see that it might not have the intended effect of ‘driv[ing] up quality’ or encouraging ‘flexible and lifetime learning’. The idea here is that students will be able to study a few modules at one institution, then drop out of that institution and take their credit elsewhere. They’ll then be able to accumulate some credit there, and take them elsewhere – presumably until they have enough credit for a degree.

This is a somewhat disconcerting prospect in and of itself. When a department writes a programme specification for, for example, a BA (Hons) in English Literature, it takes an overview of the English courses offered by its own department and produces an overall assessment of what someone who has taken this course will end up with. This is something that students can use to identify their skills and keep track of their strengths. Programme Specifications will usually be quality-controlled using central guidelines (for most, this will be the QAA Subject Benchmark Statements) – but one look at the statement for English Literature, for example, will show that the Subject Benchmark Statements are deliberately vague. This means that they can be met in a variety of different ways, allowing departments to play to the strengths of their staff and their character as an intellectual community.

If every department taught exactly the same thing, it would lower the quality of most degrees: staff would no longer be able to exercise the substantial research expertise and intellectual creativity that characterises an academic researcher. In fact, it would entirely remove the value of having researchers teaching in higher education, making university only an extension of school, rather than a place where students learn the value of intellectual and critical inquiry. Instead of being taught by the very people who are extending the boundaries of knowledge – and in the case of research-led teaching, being given insight into how those boundaries are extended – they can be taught by anybody who has read the syllabus. Pretty boring – and also a blow to the many initiatives which aim to diversify the curriculum and challenge its traditional dominance by Dead White Men™. But boring is exactly what a curriculum would have to look like if seamless, unlimited credit transfer were allowed and students could jump between institutions, gathering credits and graduating wherever they ended up last. Individual programme specifications and innovation in curriculum design would be rendered meaningless; modules and curricula would have to be standardised so that they had meaning across institutions.

I also want to highlight another alarming piece of the rhetoric in this document around credit transfer. BIS claim that:

research by the Sutton Trust indicates that many students from under-represented groups attend institutions that they are over-qualified for – often, especially if they are the first in their family to attend university, because they didn’t have the self-belief to aim higher. Transferring institutions at the end of the first or second year could in many cases significantly improve the life chances of these individuals.

It’s obviously sad that some students don’t feel that they are entitled to aim as high as possible in terms of institutions, especially since the high grades of a student from an under-represented groups probably represent harder work than similarly high grades from a privileged student. However, I don’t think the answer is to transfer at the end of the first year. Students from under-represented groups are likely to need more support when entering university, and for that support to continue throughout their journey. Changing institutions causes upheaval and stress, and makes all the support that the student accessed in their first year – which took a lot of time and energy on their part – effectively void, as now they have a whole new set of regulations and procedures to deal with, as well as a new set of staff and fellow students, a new campus and perhaps even a new city.

Breaking up the degree like this also means that these students will be less well-known to the staff, and end their degree with a smaller pool of staff who are able to write references for employment or further study. Having a staff member who has seen you improve over the years and who can attest to your long-term development and abilities is key for maximising ‘life chances’ in whatever activity students choose to do after graduating. If they’ve only spent two years or even one in the place they graduate, they have a smaller pool of staff to choose from and those staff will know them less well. It should go without saying that few, if any, academic staff would refuse any student a reference who needed one (indeed, reference-writing is a huge source of academic overwork). However, if they have only known the student a short time, they can only attest to their abilities during this short time – the better they know the student, the better they can highlight their qualities in a reference. If anything, non-traditional students need this most of all, as they will probably have less social capital and are unlikely to have other sources for references.

Finally, I want to take issue with the rhetoric of ‘aim[ing] high’ when selecting a university, and the implications in this rhetoric that place in the league tables, or entry grades, correlate with quality of education. This is entirely untrue. Entry grades for a university show only what students have going in, not what they leave with – which may vary considerably. Universities don’t tend to increase entry tariffs because their courses are more difficult, or only for clever people, but as a response to increased demand for places. A university with lower entry grades may be less popular, but it may add a lot of value to students once they get there – and students will in all cases be taught by staff with sufficient research expertise to challenge them and extend their capabilities. The high calibre of staff in most universities means that you could put a student from Oxbridge into a ‘lower-status’ university and, while they might be upset at the lack of dreaming spires, they would not be any less challenged by the teaching. Staff in ‘lower-status’ universities may also be better equipped to help those students who may struggle in their first term owing to their lack of experience in the university environment, helping them to attain their high potential – and if this is a large degree higher than where they started, all the more credit should go to that university, rather than depriving them of that student for the rest of their degree.

In short, flexibility is great, and so is being student-centred – but I’m not entirely sure that this is what we get from the White Paper. The promised increase in fees and attempt to increase ‘competition’ and thus ‘quality’ may, if anything, dampen students’ ability to get the most from universities, as institutions compete to get to the top of artificial metrics rather than finding their individual strengths. In this case, ironically, the TEF may actually reduce student choice, not increase it. That’s the ‘power of the market’ for you.

Emma Kennedy, May 2016