Back to that Christmas Wishlist.

I have argued before that I do not believe bursaries are an effective way of encouraging students from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to University. I don’t think they do any harm, but telling someone from a disadvantaged background, who has already confounded expectations, worked extremely hard and broken through seemingly impossible barriers, that they can now have a discount on their debt is a nice reward, but it won’t help the classmates that they have left behind.

The Christmas Wishlist that I posted on this blog and on the Guardian HE blog included a list of alternatives to bursaries, one of them was to establish a proper national credit transfer scheme. This is something that is currently possible in theory already, but almost impossible in practice.

Almost all UK Universities now use credit bases or modularised systems to deliver programmes (there are a handful of notable exceptions), the Quality Assurance Agency provides guidance on this that is in no way compulsory, but does a pretty good job of capturing the common features of credit based courses. So why is transferring from one university or college to another so difficult?

In reality most students who find themselves taking a course at a university they don’t like or face circumstances in which they have to move away from a particular location have to choose between sticking at it or dropping out altogether. This problem was highlighted in a piece by Gill Wyness in the Guardian yesterday:

“(If) a student from a low income background decides to go to university. She is the first in her family to do so, and has little knowledge of the sector. She is more likely to attend a new university than a Russell Group institution. As the Sutton Trust identified in 2004 such a student is also more likely to attend an institution that she is over-qualified for.

“So what if, at the end of her first year, our student realises that she can improve her future employment and wage prospects significantly by transferring to a different institution? Well, unfortunately, there is no easy way of doing this.

“Many universities do not consider transfers. Those that do tend to consider requests only on a case-by-case basis, almost always at departmental level. UCAS, the usual port of call for university applicants, advises students simply to ‘speak to the new university or college to see if they will consider you.'”

As ever, this is a situation where Universities are free to do as they please, and they are choosing not to reform of a system that penalises students and refuses them the freedom to set their own academic path.

The new fees system might help to overcome this; if the money always follows the student then universities will be keener to entice them. Perhaps some more engineering by HEFCE to give Universities the chance to expand student numbers if they accept credit from other universities would help? Could student fees be applied to a cost per credit rather per year?

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