As part of a raft of reforms to the way universities in England are run, the government is looking at whether it should be easier for students to switch between courses at different universities. Alongside a white paper on higher education, and the publication of a new Higher Education and Research Bill, it has launched a consultation on demand for accelerated degree courses – shorter than the average three years – and whether students want the flexibility to change where they study.
This idea is not new. In 1993, the Flowers Report saw an attempt to introduce into UK higher education a longer undergraduate year, flexibility and accelerated degrees. Some institutions did develop two-year degrees but most of them faded away. Buckingham University is currently the only UK university with a wide range of two-year degrees, though others still offer a few of them.
In 2006, the Higher Education Funding Council for England initiated a pilot study on flexible learning. This too faded away.
Accelerated degrees tend to appeal to mature, part-time students, an important group but not the young, full-time students that the new white paper is thinking of, who may struggle with intensive learning without breaks for paid work and recreation.
The principles of credit-transfer, however, are firmly embedded in the Bologna process of harmonisation of Europe’s higher education systems through the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation system. Yet, credit-transfer across countries has not happened to the degree that the original Bologna signatories envisaged. The US higher education system also has a credit-transfer system in place, though it doesn’t mean you can easily move from a community college to Harvard or Princeton and its accelerated programmes are mainly aimed at adult learners.
The language the white paper uses about public universities – described as “incumbents” as though they are unwanted lodgers – suggests that it is mostly “new providers” and probably for-profit institutions that would be expected to innovate by providing more flexible patterns of study.
The late higher education scholar David Watson argued that flexibility did not happen in the established universities because of “protectionism” – a term more redolent of the manufacturing industry than higher education. Yet, at masters level, credit-transfer has been successful in the UK for some time, for example in departments such as education.
Credit-transfer between universities also works well in part-time undergraduate study. But full-time degrees offer more challenges in relation to flexibility, especially in a system where many undergraduate students move away from home. It also affects data on how they progress from first to second year and so on. The white paper suggests that unlike now, students who change institutions won’t be categorised as not completing.
Ways to introduce flexibility
There are a few ways it could be possible to create more flexibility in the way students move between institutions.
One, would be to make moving from full-time to part-time study and from face-to-face to distance learning and back, simpler everywhere. This is common in some other countries, such as Australia.
An article by analyst Ant Bagshaw on the website WonkHE, suggests a second UCAS transfer-round for first-year undergraduates so that they could go elsewhere at that point. But this could be very destabilising for students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds because socially and culturally they will have to start all over again with peers who have already been in their next university for a year. Bagshaw also suggests an alternative “pick and mix” system where students could choose modules from anywhere but one university would validate their end degree. Coherence and lack of overlap would be issues in such a system.
It might also be possible to introduce more collaborative programmes between universities, but the landscape for this is not encouraging, given a renewed emphasis on competition between universities. Alternatively, study based on free massive open online courses could lead to flexible accredited study, perhaps through a body such as FutureLearn. An overall validating institution would still be needed.
What this might mean for universities
Introducing more flexibility into full-time undergraduate study would undoubtedly be destabilising for universities if lots of undergraduates started moving around the system mid-degree. Changing your university isn’t the same as changing your bank and far from “driving up” standards it may actually drive them down.
Teaching jobs could become even less secure if student numbers declined in existing institutions. The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills clearly sees academics as lazy people with long summer vacations (forgetting research and postgraduate supervision) who should just teach undergraduates all year round.
The government’s attitude to existing public universities in the white paper is extraordinary: they are positioned as spoilt children. Yet, it is those same universities who are responsible for the UK’s strong global reputation and high international research rankings. Something that starts off as a reasonable proposition – let’s make all degree studies more flexible – could end up as a way of weakening and undermining the whole system.