Tony Strike responds to criticism of the Russell Group for pushing back on credit transfer
Jo Johnson, a former universities and science minister, criticised Russell Group universities at last week’s Conservative Party conference for the “heavy pushback” he encountered when trying to set up a credit transfer system between universities and colleges.
Many remember and respect the reasons for Johnson’s resignation from the Cabinet a year ago and one cannot gainsay someone’s lived experience, but I would suggest the pushback, if it existed, from universities—and students—at the time, was against the consumerist rhetoric through which the former minister sought to sell the idea in the market-based system he helped to create. This rhetoric suggested that switching university was little different from switching electricity provider.
The idea of better facilitating student mobility, on the other hand, was broadly welcomed, is important and should be as frictionless as possible.
A study I led in 2017—Should I Stay or Should I Go? Student demand for credit transfer and recommendations for policy and practice—sought to explore students’ attitudes towards, and demand for, greater mobility. For the purposes of the research, student mobility was defined as the ability of students to move to a different higher education provider during a programme of study, using methods such as credit transfer to continue their studies without the need to start anew or repeat work already successfully undertaken. We collected quantitative and qualitative data from 2,475 students and 57 staff across seven institutions.
Students, not shoppers
The students we surveyed and interviewed said that student mobility could help them remain in higher education if their personal circumstances changed—that is, it could help a student move to a provider more suited to their changed needs, preventing the student from being forced to drop out of higher education altogether. Students did not see it as an opportunity to trade up or to move around in higher education by acting as if they were shoppers in a market.
Almost two-thirds of the students surveyed said they were unsure about or disagreed with the principle that improving student mobility would improve the quality and value of their degree. Most students in focus groups expressed concerns about the quality of their course and its intellectual coherence if they engaged in mobility processes.
Any switching scheme introduced with a narrative only about student choice would therefore have imposed a view on students that most did not hold. The students in the study did, however, think transfer should be possible and frictionless when and if they needed it, and when other stresses driving the need to move would mean any artificial barriers were likely to be keenly felt.
But the students who wanted to move, or who could conceive circumstances in which they would have to move, feared it would be difficult and would devalue their degree and make them look unreliable. This, they said, could add further stress at what was likely to be an already stressful time. Their teachers, equally, had concerns about the intellectual integrity of a degree ‘broken’ across locations.
Students nevertheless said that there was a need for clearer and more transparent processes, information, advice and guidance on student mobility in higher education providers, and higher education as a whole, which they perceived would help students in need and tackle any stigma associated with transferring.
There did not appear to be significant demand for student mobility that remained unmet because of existing practices; most students hoped for success in the place they had chosen for their studies. However, the minority who expressed a desire to withdraw or transfer said they would benefit from changes that made student mobility a more openly recognised practice.
The crucial finding was that some evidence of a latent demand for greater student mobility existed in two forms. The first—and most prominent from the data—was the desire for greater provision of mobility as a way of supporting students experiencing adversity, such as a change in family circumstances leading to a need to move back home, or the need for access to services connected to mental health and wellbeing, which can vary across the country.
The second form was demand among students who had considered withdrawal or transfer during a period of adjustment, where prior expectations and lived experience differed (26 per cent of survey respondents). Even here, the study did not clearly indicate that students were calling for greater mobility. This reluctance was for a complex set of interconnected reasons, including the immediate financial costs of mobility; social and community attachment to a university; the coherence of a single degree programme; the potential impact of mobility on the quality and value of a degree both during and after study; and the perception that too much mobility would frame them as unreliable or ‘flaky’.
Very few students in this study suggested that they would engage in mobility as a means of improving or responding to changes in their course or ‘trading up’ on their course or institution.
In structural terms, we recommended locating the issue of student mobility and credit transfer in student support, welfare, advice and guidance, rather than treating it as a marketing and student recruitment activity. This would ensure that providers of student welfare services, and independent and impartial advice services, considered how to help students identify when transfer to another provider would be the right decision for them, and provided support networks and mentoring to facilitate a smooth transition. For example, they could ensure that learning contracts were transferred between higher education providers—a student-centred rather than provider-centred approach.
If students and universities did push back against the idea of credit transfer then it was not against credit transfer itself but against the attempted politicisation, rather than amelioriation, of a mechanism already being used in the student interest.
Tony Strike is university secretary at the University of Sheffield, convenor of the Association of Heads of University Administration North, an elected member of the executive board of the European Association for Institutional Research, editor of Higher Education Strategy and Planning (2018) and co-editor of Governing Higher Education Today (2019), both published by Routledge. He writes here in a personal capacity.