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A Documentary Study for Arrangements for Credit Accumulation and Transfer in Higher Education


Definitions: Credit Accumulation

In most systems credits are defined in terms of hours - each course attended having a 'value' expressed in terms of hours (actual or notional) spent in attending it (and in meeting any other requirements that the course may have, such as undertaking written, or practical, or field work). In addition, a certain level of performance must be maintained in the work done for each course, if the credit hours relating to that course are to count towards the qualification, and credits are awarded only if academic performance on the course is judged to be satisfactory (e.g. by passing examinations at the end of the course).

'Credits' therefore measure not only inputs (time spent, work done, etc.) but outputs (i.e. the attainment of a minimum standard).

The accumulation of a minimum number of credits is normally a necessary - but not always a sufficient - condition for the award of a degree or other qualification, or in order to be permitted to proceed to the next stage of a course, or to embark on a new course.

Definitions: Credit Transfer

It has always been possible for an institution of higher education to recognise a period of study undertaken at another institution, and allow some credit towards one of its own qualifications on the basis of such recognition (i.e. to allow credits earned elsewhere to be transferred). This may have been done by exempting the student concerned from part of the normal requirement for the award of the qualification, or for admission to the institution; or by specifically providing for such cases in the admission or award regulations.

The transfer of credit may be 'vertical' or 'horizontal' (or neither). 'Vertical' transfer involves a student moving from an institution at one level in an educational system (e.g. a junior, or community, college), to an institution at a higher level (e.g. a university), taking with him the credits earned at the former, and being required, as a result, to spend less time at the latter (e.g. two years instead of four years) in order to gain a qualification (e.g. a degree) from the latter. 'Horizontal' transfer involves students moving between institutions (e.g. universities) at the same level (e.g. in order to spend one year of a four-year course at another institution) and receiving credit at their home institution for the time spent away.

General Considerations

With regard to credit accumulation and transfer, there has traditionally been a divide between institutions deriving from the British tradition (with the exception of Canada) and those deriving from the continental European (and especially Teutonic) tradition (which, for this purpose, can be held to include most American universities). For most of their existence, the former have eschewed degree structures based upon credit accumulation, and have normally dealt with credit transfer on a discretionary basis, treating each case as an exception and dealing with individual applications on their merits. The latter have been much more sympathetic to the concept of credit accumulation, and have been ready to regard credit transfer as normal, rather than exceptional, and to legislate for it on that basis. There has been a further distinction, however, between the North American and the continental European traditions, in that the North Americans have been mostly concerned with 'vertical' transfer (seen as a vehicle for increasing access to higher education - and therefore equality of opportunity) whilst the European tradition has provided for the most part for 'horizontal' transfer - reflecting, perhaps, a long tradition of 'the wandering scholar'.

This distinction between the 'British' institutions and systems, on the one hand, and the 'continental' on the other hand, has begun to be eroded in recent years, as the former have moved from the concept of 'elite' to 'mass' higher education provision, and hence to a developing concern for the role which credit accumulation and transfer can play in widening access. At the same time, political considerations (e.g. the move towards European integration) and social and economic developments (e.g. cross-border flows of the young, the professionally qualified, and the job-seeker, of capital, and of information, as part of the world-wide trend towards globalisation) have increased the demand for the portability of qualifications, both within, and beyond, national boundaries and this has been reinforced by the demand from adult learners and from part-time students for continual professional and personal updating - not least as a result of the growth of the 'knowledge industries'. All this has led to a demand for 'life-long learning', and for a recognition that such learning will increasingly occur at times, in places, and in ways, which are different from the traditional full-time campus-based mode.

In the Western Hemisphere, these factors have combined to create a demand for the development of a system which will enable students to design programmes of education which may be built on during their lifetimes from a number of sources, only some of which will be known in advance, but others of which will arise as career and other objectives evolve with changing economic and social circumstances. In considering the possibility of extending the arrangements for credit accumulation and transfer which already exist in the Hong Kong higher education system, careful thought needs to be given as to the extent to which factors such as the above obtain in Hong Kong, and the purposes which such an extension would therefore be intended to serve; and any arrangements designed accordingly.

In the study of individual countries and regions which follows, we describe the existing arrangements and latest developments in credit accumulation and transfer and draw attention to those aspects which we believe may be relevant to decision makers who are given the task of conceiving an appropriate system for Hong Kong in the light of the thrust of new developments in the educational system. The study is divided into three sections: the first dealing with major jurisdictions; the second and third with selected jurisdictions in Europe and South East Asia.

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