There are not many genuinely unique ideas in higher education. Today, we at HESA are releasing a paper about one of them: Korea’s Academic Credit Bank System (ACBS), available here.
Korea has long had a problem with credit transfer. Its higher education institutions are fairly rigid in terms of admissions, and few like accepting transfer students. Another big problem is that Korean males have to do two years (roughly – it depends on the service) of universal military service, and they tend to do it before they’ve finished their higher education. People wanting to combine credits taken from a variety of institutions while on duty were usually out of luck if they tried to get those credits counted at their old institution.
So, in the 1990s, the Korean government started experimenting with new forms of educational credential. Their first attempt was to create something called the Self-Study Bachelor’s Degree, in which Koreans could basically take a bunch of challenge exams on their own, and obtain a credential. But the pick-up rate on this was fairly low (lessons here for people who thought MOOCs would create a tsunami of change, had they cared to check), and so the search for solutions was back on.
Eventually, they hit on the answer: if we can’t get existing institutions to agree on transfer credit, why not create a new institution that specializes in granting transfer credit? In fact, why not create an institution that doesn’t offer any credit of its own, but just develops degree standards and tells people what courses to take in order to meet them? No more schools telling you: “yeah, you’ve already taken that methods pre-req class, but you haven’t taken our methods pre-req class, so you’ll need to do that material again” – if the class gets accredited by the ACBS, you can use it as a building block to an ACBS degree.
Does it work? You might say that. The ACBS now awards roughly 8% of all degrees in South Korea, second only to the Korea National Open Univerisy (KNOU). It has curricula for over 200 individual fields of study, and increasingly, the ACBS target audience is older and more female, with more and more degrees coming in areas like social work and early childhood education.
Would the ACBS work well outside Korea? Hard to say: it’s not clear, for instance, that a Canadian ACBS would get a lot of clients. Yes, the Canadian credit transfer system outside British Columbia and Alberta (which have quite developed transfer mechanisms) is a less a “system” than a barrel full of ad-hoc solutions. But as I showed back here and here, this ad-hoc-ery actually works-out okay in practice. So while a Credit Bank might be a much cleaner solution than the piecemeal kind of approach Ontario has taken through ONCAT, it may also be overkill.
Where this approach might make even more sense is in the US, where, as Cliff Adelman and others have shown, there are millions of people with unfinished degrees who want to get a degree, but who are worried about the time and expense of having to re-start their studies. The main barrier, really, is: how do you get something like that past accreditation agencies? But given the potential benefits, it’s a problem worth thinking about.