Every once in awhile, the issue of credit transfer pops up. Usually, it’s in the context of “learning efficiency” – some politician or deputy minister starts off with, “why can’t my son/daughter/constituent get full credit for previous learning”, and follows that with some diatribe about how universities and colleges “just don’t get it”, etc, etc.
Right now, this script is playing out in Alberta, where the Advanced Education Minister is asking institutions to create ten per cent more “seamless learner pathways”, whatever that means.
Now, it’s quite true that universities have incentives not to accept transfer credit, the reasons are both financial (receiving universities can make more money if they accept fewer credits), and reputational (high-status receiving universities will seem more exclusive if they accept fewer credits). And there is certainly a public interest in reducing barriers of this kind.
The problem, though, is that there are some perfectly good reasons not to accept transfer credit. Credits are not a universal currency; they need to be taken in particular sequences and combinations if they are to result in a degree. One can’t take 120 History credits and expect to get a B.Eng.
Basically, a school accepting a transfer student needs to ask two questions: are this student’s credits of the right “level”? And, are the credits relevant to the new program the student will be attending? If the answer to either of those questions is no, then they are perfectly justified in rejecting the credit.
Most people focus on the issue of determining the “level” of credits – should it be done by bulky credit-transfer systems, like those in Alberta and BC? Or, should it be done through standards-based systems, like the European Credit Transfer System? Those are important questions: the efficacy of the former seems to fall as the number of participating institutions rises, but nobody in Canada seems inclined to try the latter, because it’s too much work.
But, in fact, the bigger challenge is determining the relevance of old credits to new programs. The whole point of specialized degree programs is that they offer something specific that others don’t; the more unique programs are, the harder it should be to transfer in credits. This is why it’s completely baffling when politicians insist that institutions should simultaneously reduce program duplication and allow more transfer credit. They’re two directives operating at cross-purposes.
And to make matters worse, the one thing usually ignored in this debate is actual data. While n=1 might work for a features story, that doesn’t prove there’s a generalized problem.
But never fear, we at HESA actually have some real data on this subject, both from colleges and universities. More tomorrow.