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Oxford professor calls for less snobbery over portable qualifications

British universities have been urged to move towards a US-style system of credit transfer where students can switch institutions and trade “portable” qualifications.

A stimulus paper launched by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education says that reviving the UK’s credit accumulation and transfer system (CATS) is critical if higher education is to prosper in the contemporary world.

The paper’s author, Professor Sir David Watson, the Principal of Templeton Green College, Oxford, argues that higher status universities, in particular, need to be less “snobbish” about the routes that students take.

He said that some institutions were “writing off” non-traditional applicants because of where they come from.

“To fix this you need everybody to work together, you need high status institutions to be less precious about where their students are coming from. By all means focus on what they can do and how good they are but don’t have so many of these artificial cut offs,” he said in an interview with HEi-know.

“In the US, institutions are more comfortable about listening to an individual student’s case so there are more examples of students trading up to higher status institutions.

“British institutions, before they even consider the individual students case, too often write them off because of where they came from.”

Under the CATS framework, students are given credit for work they have completed at sub-degree level – foundation degrees, diplomas or Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) for instance - or degree level. If a student moves between institutions, the credit is taken into account and they are given “advanced standing”, starting the degree programme in the second or third year.

The approach gives students who may have to halt their studies for some reason the flexibility to return, and recognises the value of non-traditional routes, as opposed to the “royal route” of A-levels, uninterrupted first degree followed directly by a masters.

The paper, Credit Risk? Reviving credit accumulation and transfer in UK higher education, found that while modular degrees are common in the UK and most universities claim to have a credit system, very few students are given advanced standing as a result of credits earned elsewhere.

The exception was the Open University. Of the 3,606 students who entered higher years on the basis of HE credits earned in other institutions, 65 per cent joined the OU. Similarly, the Open University took nearly 30 per cent of those students admitted to university holding formal sub-degree qualifications.

In Scotland, where there has been a more concerted effort to embed CATs, 90 per cent of students transferring into post-92 universities earned full credit. However, only 1 per cent of the much smaller number entering Scotland’s four “ancient” universities was given advance standing.

“Scotland has tried harder than any other part of the UK to get the systems up and running,” said Sir David, professor of higher education and former Vice-Chancellor at the University of Brighton.

“The systems, in so far as they are working, are only generally working between the lower status institutions, the former public sector institutions. They are not in the ancient, higher status universities.”

Sir David argues that individuals get “typecast” by the first steps they take into post-compulsory education.

“If you are on the royal route – you have got your A-levels and you get your degree first time from a Sutton 13 institution and you do your masters degree from a similar institution, you are sailing through. But if you discover mid career that you are quite good at lots of the things that you would like to study, you are held back much more by your prior history in the UK than in the US.”

Figures produced in the paper show CATS in the US allows a large proportion of the population to have at least some experience of tertiary education. One third of all students changed institutions at some time before earning a degree. A quarter transferred more than once.
Even the most prestigious institutions are prepared to “play the CATs game” and accept course credits from similar institutions, the paper says.

“In at least half of the US system there is a culture that says ‘I’ve got this much college and I can trade it in,’” said Sir David.

“Students who have gone back to work or had to leave university for whatever reason have the confidence to knock on the door of other institutions and say ‘look I completed my first year in electrical engineering, please admit me with advanced standing.”

Sir David said the UK’s “quite high standards of mutually assured quality” meant universities here could be more confident than in other parts of the world that students who had undergone assessment had reached the necessary level. As a result, all parts of the system needed to give CATS their appropriate respect and support.

“Universities which cater for older, part-time students are only half the system. What you don’t want is for all of these learning outcomes, which are non-standard and negotiated, to be regarded as second rate.

“It means taking widening participation seriously rather than just pretending that the traditional “royal route” will suddenly open up for new types of students.”