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Committee for Employment and Learning
15 February 2001
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
The Chairperson: I welcome the representatives from the Northern Ireland Credit Accumulation and Transfer System (NICATS) and thank them for the background papers that they have supplied to the Committee.
The Committee is keen to hear more about the progress of the accumulation credit system and its impact on the training and accreditation system in the Province.
Prof Roebuck: NICATS is grateful to the Committee for the opportunity to give evidence. It is hoped that it will be valuable to us and to you. Monica Deasy, director of NICATS, is on sick leave, so the two assistant directors are with me today.
As well as the briefing paper, you should have a copy of the NICATS response to the Programme for Government and copies of my presentation.
NICATS allows all learner achievement, even small amounts, to be recorded and recognised. The introduction of Curriculum 2000 requires qualifications to be unitised, and in that is a recognition that learning needs should be accredited in smaller blocks. The NICATS project ran from 1996 to 1999, and it was funded by the Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI). The recommendations of the project were accepted, and the Department decided that NICATS should become part of the Government's overall plan for the encouragement of lifelong learning.
An implementation committee was set up in 1999. Its objectives were to establish a central unit, that now exists in York Street in Belfast; develop a credit framework in collaboration with other interested parties; provide staff development to support that framework; generate links with a variety of bodies in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in these islands and Europe; and to develop a database and design a credit transcript, both of which will powerfully underpin NICATS operations.
It is funded by the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, which sees it as central to the lifelong learning policy. I am chairperson of the implementation committee, and on it are representatives from all the major stakeholders in Northern Ireland and beyond. We work closely with a number of other credit agencies in these islands, and we are learning from them.
This may sound pompous, but in Northern Ireland, we are ahead of the game. No other credit organisation has made as much progress as ours has over recent years.
I am sure that you will want to know why NICATS is important to education and training in the Province. I have plucked out a number of words and phrases from the Programme for Government. Those words not only underpin the Programme for Government but also the NICATS agenda.
I want to look at a few of those phrases and explain briefly why NICATS is going to promote them. First, NICATS sets out to motivate people to take up learning by offering learning in smaller blocks and giving it credit immediately and clearly. This will make learning opportunities more accessible to a wider range of people than take advantage of those opportunities at the moment. In other words, we want to make lifelong learning a reality. All achievement will be recognised and recorded on a personal transcript. Learners can build credit towards further study if they wish. That system will make it much easier for them to study when, where and at the sort of pace which suits them.
With regard to equality, NICATS will provide a common language for recording learning. That will help to establish parity of esteem between a variety of different qualifications, something which is missing at the moment. With regard to skilling, NICATS will enable employers to respond much more rapidly to training needs. Learners will be able to claim recognition for the learning that they have achieved. Programmes dealt with in this way will positively contribute to the various targets set by the Government. NICATS will untap the potential of individuals by engaging them in learning, increasing their motivation and, perhaps above all, by taking the fear out of education by offering an alternative to the traditional linear process of learning.
NICATS will help to make that decisive shift from education for employment on the one hand to education for employability on the other. In other words, we will not be educating people to do a particular job. We will be developing a wide range of their abilities to do a variety of jobs throughout their working life. NICATS will facilitate this by providing an adaptable and flexible system. People will be able to take short, relevant credit-based programmes. This will encourage the culture of lifelong learning, and it will enable employers to go about their training in a more focused and cost-effective way. We will help to raise standards by encouraging all stakeholders to adhere to the principles and guidelines of NICATS. That will ensure standards.
The facilities which we will provide will allow programmes to be much more carefully tailored to meet market needs. NICATS programmes can be regularly updated, so curricula will not easily get out of date. Standards will be raised by making learning achievement much more explicit. Learners will know exactly what is expected of them. Employers will know what people have achieved up to a certain point. Their progression routes can be made more transparent, and new pathways can be created for them. With regard to implementation, we are working across the United Kingdom with other partners in the Credit Equivalence Project. We are very closely involved in the FE sector/NICATS in the Access Curriculum Development Project whereby all 39 Access courses throughout Northern Ireland will have common modules and will, therefore, work to the same standards and objectives.
We are very involved in the development of foundation degrees. We are embedding NICATS in the higher education sector through participation in the Quality Assurance Agency's quality agenda. We are collaborating with other credit agencies throughout these islands, and we are producing a manual on credit-based learning.
We are on the verge of launching our web site, which will be important in promoting NICATS regionally and nationally. We will have a database of units which will help practitioners to devise programmes of learning to NICATS specifications. A transcript will be developed to record individual learner achievement. That is our agenda, and we would be delighted to answer any of your questions.
The Chairperson: Thank you for an extremely concise and useful summary.
Mr Beggs: The concept of encouraging people to take smaller bites at education and build on those, rather than be put off by daunting high goals, is excellent and must be encouraged. I like the concept of a credit accumulation scheme. Can you give us examples of how that would work in practice as regards higher and further education? It appears to be quite theoretical. How would it encourage people to adopt higher standards of education and thus help the economy?
Prof Roebuck: My colleagues can talk about the community and voluntary sector and about access. However, I will begin by giving an example. I have been involved in higher education for 30 years. Frequently, people have to drop out of education, or they have to change institutions for a variety of domestic and personal reasons. In other words there is some break in their education programme. Until now, most cases have been dealt with on a purely individual basis. If a person drops out a quarter of the way through the second year of a course and has to move to another institution for family reasons, they would often go back to the beginning of the second year, and time and money are wasted.
NICATS will record the level of their achievement in terms of credit as they move through a course, and all of the stakeholders in the system will recognise our transcripts and our database. This will mean that when life-changes interfere with people's educational progress, they can move on more quickly and effectively, albeit in a different place.
Dr Egerton: The community and voluntary sectors are represented by Annie Moore of the Northern Ireland Open College Network, who is a member of our implementation committee. The Open College Network accredits non-formal learning, for example, learning that can be taken in small steps. It gives people who have not been involved in learning the chance to engage with education and build up to more formal qualifications.
It is very important that NICATS embraces such work and that it all comes under the same framework. It is also very important that all learning, whether formal or not, is recognised within that framework, so as to allow people to progress. The model tries to bring transparency to learning in that it is based on learning outcomes and assessment criteria. It is also transparent in that we will have a common language for describing learning, which learners and employers will understand and so be able to compare what has been achieved.
To assist us, we are involved in a process, involving all of the sectors, of putting together a manual on the credit-based approach to learning.
I can best answer the question as regards standards and retention. We are working with 39 Access to Higher Education courses throughout Northern Ireland. Access to Higher Education programmes are really directed at adults who have few, if any, qualifications. They are one of their main routes into higher education.
At the moment, all 39 Access courses are offered through 19 centres. Although all of the courses have the common core of numeracy, communication, IT and study skills, the 19 centres are doing 19 different things, more or less, so part of our project will be to have the 19 centres doing the same thing as far as possible, and as far as is educationally practical and feasible.
We are intending to develop core modules in maths, communication, IT and study skills that are used by those courses. We see benefits in doing that.
Although you get mature students going into higher education programmes, the problem is that there is a very high drop-out rate within a few weeks of their starting. That happens for a variety of reasons, but mostly for financial reasons, family or other personal commitments. They simply cannot stay the course. Many drop out and think that it is another failure and that they have wasted their time.
These Access courses will be based on a series of modules for which students will receive immediate credit once a module is completed. If they have to drop out for some reason, they go away with their credit recorded on a transcript. They do not go away as failures but as having credit recorded in their transcripts' bank account, so to speak.
We came across some research by people at the University of Derby, where they operate such a credit system. They found that although they still have a 20% drop-out rate in the first few weeks of an Access course, 60% of the drop-outs who leave with some credits for what they have achieved come back and complete their studies within two years. This research is showing that a credit-based approach to learning can work.
Mr Beggs: What is the continuation study rate for those who drop out of studies in Northern Ireland? How many of those who drop out of the Northern Ireland universities subsequently come back and complete their studies?
Ms Patton: I do not have any information on that.
Prof Roebuck: There is no systematic work being done on that. We strongly suspect that the drop-out rate is quite high in pre-HE Access courses.
Mr Dallat: Professor Roebuck's contribution to lifelong learning is well recognised. We want to make best use of his time. One of the problems in the North and the South was the acceptability of qualifications in both jurisdictions, and membership of the European Union has at least forced some of the institutions to address that problem. Nevertheless, there is still a horrendous problem for many of the people that you are focusing on. Is there anything an organisation can do to widen access and, at the same time, prevent exit?
Prof Roebuck: I am very happy to give you a positive response to your first point. It is very important that NICATS articulates effectively, not just with stakeholders in Northern Ireland, but with other credit systems throughout these islands and further afield. For example, we are watching ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) in continental Europe very carefully, and we are in touch with many of the credit agencies in Britain.
With regard to the South, when our project report was published in 1999, I arranged for it to be distributed widely in the Republic. As a result of that, the committee of university registrars in the Republic came up North, and I gave them a presentation on it. Monica Deasy, the director, and I went down to Dublin to give a presentation to a larger group of people. Since then, we have begun to get traffic from individual institutions and teachers.
That is under way, and we are pleased with the progress that has been made on that front. Would you repeat the second part of your question?
Mr Dallat: You are encouraging access as far as possible. Can you discourage exit?
Prof Roebuck: Quite apart from the specific Access programmes, the best we are going to achieve here is twofold. A great deal of learning goes on in the community and the voluntary sectors, but it is done in small chunks, at levels that remain unconnected with the main educational system.
One of our chief functions is to gather that learning, to accredit it and to link it on, not to a "ladder" but to a "lattice". That is a major priority. The second element - and Dr Egerton might want to comment on this - is that we are already interacting very closely with business and industry in Northern Ireland. If we do not do that we will fail.
Dr Egerton: In terms of increasing access, one of the major features of the NICATS model is to encourage the motivation of our learners. They can receive regular accreditation for learning and can build that up, rather than be faced with a distant examination two years down the line. Motivation is very important.
In relation to our involvement with industry and employers, the NICATS model is very useful in enabling employers to customise their programmes for potential employees. That has various economic benefits. Employers are able to ensure that programmes are tailor-made. Employees will be motivated and will get recognition for their training. Accreditation will allow training to be put towards other awards or to other uses, and not just within the company.
We are involved in a UK credit equivalence project. That is a major project for us. It is looking at credit equivalence for qualifications. Curriculum 2000 allows more flexibility, but employers and learners need to be able to compare qualifications. There is a great deal of confusion about the worth and levels of the different qualifications. We are trying to establish credit equivalence for national qualifications and the units that go towards making them up. We recognise that certain qualifications do not necessarily suit all employers and learners. They want to be able to take the units that suit them, and they need to be able to get credit for those units. People need to know what the various units are worth and how they can be built upon. The project is looking at NVQs, A levels, GNVQs, et cetera, and their respective units.
Our first two staff development days were held last week, and we have people from firms such as Shorts, Nortel Ltd, Michelin Tyre plc, F G Wilson (Engineering) Ltd, Harland & Wolff and Seagate Technology interested in the credit equivalence exercise. They see it as being very relevant in bringing transparency and worth to qualifications, allowing them to offer more meaningful and relevant units to their employees, rather than the full qualifications.
Ms Patton: I will give an example relating to widening access. I have been interviewing learners to get their ideas on credit and how much they feel it would help them. I interviewed someone last week in relation to a case study for our web site and our newsletter. This individual left school at the age of 15 with no qualifications. Before marrying and raising a family she got a series of what she called "very boring" junior office jobs, with tasks such as filing and making the tea. In her 40s, after raising her family, she wanted to get back to work. She found that the office environment was now so computerised and different that she had no qualifications that would have enabled her to get a job. The only job that she could get was as a cleaner in the University of Ulster. She then moved to canteen work in the university. She told me that she had wanted to get back into learning and that the only way she could think of was to do GCSEs, as they were the recognised qualifications.
She went into the GCSE course, and it was full of 16-year-olds. She said that she felt such a misfit that she dropped out after a short time. She then found out through her work union that there was a Return to Learn programme that was offered by one of the community organisations. She told me that it was a complete revelation, because it was covering all the things she really needed to get herself back into a proper job. It covered interview techniques, listening skills, presentation skills as well as Maths, English language, and so on.
She was able to complete the course because she could take it in bits and get credit. She told me that she enrolled for the course because she was not scared of doing it in bits, but she would have been scared of doing a complete course that might have taken a year. As a result she continued with her education, has now completed a university bridging course and intends to go into university full time, if she can get the funding for it.
That is an example of someone for whom the traditional GCSE qualifications did not work. They demotivated her, but when these other programmes came into play, they were just what she needed. One of her final points to me was that people do not really understand the courses that she followed, except the ones that are well recognised. If she had had a NICATS transcript that gave credits for those "funny", as she called them, courses she has done, as well as the more recognised diploma courses, and so forth, it really would have meant an awful lot to her. For us, that is really what NICATS in action means: widening access.
Ms McWilliams: Having worked with Ms Patton 10 years ago at trying to put those Access courses together, I am familiar with credit accumulation. I want to commend you for how far this has come. Clearly this is the future, and it is good to hear that Northern Ireland is ahead of the field. Perhaps you could comment on what makes you come to that conclusion.
Is there a time limit on credit accumulation? How long can a student be allowed to take time out and still get currency for what they have accumulated? Is there a limit on a date of return without asking them to repeat anything?
In one way I am impressed with the way that you are universalising the core modules across 39 Access courses. But on the other hand, having been so familiar with the Access courses, I am somewhat concerned that they may all be driven to core modules. Where is the individuality and the room for that, particularly given that, as you said, many of the students do not have formal qualifications? It is quite scary that it is numeracy and information technology, study skills and communication. I know from experience that it was numeracy that made many of them jump a mile.
What gatekeepers still need reassurance? In a sense, I suppose that is a marketing issue. How well are we on the road to marketing the idea of credit accumulation? Ten years ago the problem I had was trying to get the two universities to recognise that and market it between each other. Now we are at the stage of getting employers to do so. I am not just talking about marketing to employers, my question also addresses something Dr Egerton said about convincing returners, or people who have left school before they were 15, that credit accumulation means something. It still sounds terribly formal. What we are talking about is returning to learn and how well we are marketing that in our most deprived communities.
Prof Roebuck: May I accept the invitation to make a brief comment on why we think Northern Ireland is ahead in this? I would just like to comment on the last question. We do not want to make Access slavishly uniform, but we do want to give it a recognisable core, which is a slightly different thing. I think that Dr Egerton will want to say something about the whole issue of limited credit.
Some things can be done much more effectively in Northern Ireland than elsewhere, and this is one of them. Northern Ireland is a clearly defined area. If you had a credit group in northern England, where would you start, and where would you end? There are demarcation problems. Northern Ireland is a clearly defined area.
Secondly, here there are a relatively small number of institutions: two universities, the Open University, 17 further education colleges, three agricultural colleges, the Ulster People's College, the Workers Educational Association, and so on. Most of the people who work there, particularly at certain levels, know each other well and are used to working with each other. All those people are represented on the implementation committee and were represented on the project committee from 1996. Those stakeholders have already bought into that.
I think that you can do that more effectively in Northern Ireland than you could in southern England, or the Midlands, or northern England or even in the Republic of Ireland, because you are dealing with a smaller, more coherent area, one in which people are used to working with each other for various reasons. That is what our claim is based on, and it is interesting to note that many of the main features of the system that we have developed have been taken up by others. For example, our generic level descriptors are now accepted throughout the sector as the best that have been devised. The trouble is that the language is not terribly sexy, so there is a problem of marketing here.
The Chairperson: Can you tell us what a generic level descriptor is please?
Ms Patton: Since Dr Egerton's project was instrumental in developing those, she will be able to do that.
Dr Egerton: They were developed during the first phase of our project as one of the main aspects or architectural features of the credit framework. There are nine levels from entry level to level eight which span the higher and further education sectors. They describe the attributes that you would expect of learners at each stage of learning.
Prof Roebuck: We are saying that those generic level descriptors have been adopted by the other credit consortia in the UK as being models of their kind.
Dr Egerton: It has also been nationally agreed to use them within the UK Credit Equivalence Project.
Ms Patton: On the issue of access, Monica McWilliams has hit the nail on the head as usual. We are not slavishly trying to have standard core modules that sweep across all of the Access courses and take up most of their curricula. The modules being designed by the project team are ones that people can use if they wish. However, the momentum for this comes from the practitioners themselves and the difficulties that their Access certificate holders are experiencing in progressing to higher education. Some of them encounter really serious barriers if they do not have the maths GCSE equivalence. We hope that if we have this maths module, then anyone wanting to solve that problem with their Access course could take the module and use it for their students.
The NICATS model is offering a different way of looking at, and delivering, learning. The people that we have in the project team include practitioners who have very innovative and exciting ways of delivering mathematics. Because we have practitioners in the team from a range of colleges, we are hoping that that collaborative activity is going to feed into a very different sort of maths teaching on Access courses. Many students, certainly in the humanities Access programmes, are terrified of maths and will happily say "This maths scares me to death" when they come on to the course. Equally, on the project team, we have practitioners who say "I start my first class by saying that I am terrified of maths myself" or "I can understand that you are scared of maths. Let's look at different ways of learning about it". We are hoping therefore to make maths a core module that is less scary for people. Also, if students do not want to take the full maths module for GCSE equivalence, they will have the option of taking individual components, leaving out certain bits if they wish. However, we will certainly be encouraging the Access practitioners to try to deliver the whole module to students.
Dr Egerton: The currency depends on the subject area. For example, with IT or anything to do with communication the subject matter will be changing constantly, so the currency of learning is an issue. It is up to the gatekeeper to decide whether the learning is current or not. However, if it is recorded in a transcript showing the level and volume of learning, that says something about the individual. It tells us they have reached a particular level of learning and are capable of progressing to the next. I feel that is important.
Ms McWilliams: So there is no limit. They could go out for four years and then return.
Prof Roebuck: In certain subject areas, questions may have to be asked about the reliability and relevance of learning achieved five or 10 years before. However, the important point is that, in one central database for Northern Ireland, there will be a transcript record showing that, at least at that point, a certain level of learning measured against the curriculum in question was achieved. That system is accepted by all the practitioners in the Northern Ireland tertiary education sector. It is the absence of that agreed system right across the Province which so often provides obstacles for people as they progress, reducing their motivation and making them fail to take the available opportunities.
Mrs Nelis: Thank you very much for your presentation. You are all very welcome. I am very impressed by your key anticipated outcomes. The credit system crosses the academic, vocational and further education divide by encouraging a culture of learning skills. Is there any evidence of a fear in the traditional educational sectors that transferable credits might dilute their unique educational contribution?
Prof Roebuck: I am sure that there are a variety of levels of fear and apprehension when one contemplates the introduction of a quite radical new system. However, if we look back a decade, it would have been difficult, except in theoretical terms, to talk about the Northern Ireland tertiary sector at all. Now it is both possible and realistic to do so. The inter-relationship which has grown up between Northern Ireland's higher and further education sectors over the last five or 10 years, through franchised and validated programmes, progression routes from colleges into individual universities or the network of 39 Access programmes, most of which are in the further education sector, has transformed the situation. I suppose we are saying that this is a further consolidatory process to make those links stronger and render the tertiary sector seamless.
The practitioners range from absolutely convinced, dedicated enthusiasts at one end of the spectrum down to very sceptical, fearful people at the other, and there are many in between. However, there are far more people now at the positive end, whereas 10 years ago there were more at the other. We are trying to tilt the balance of attitudes decisively and also trying to produce a system which will allow the positive sides of those attitudes to bear real fruit in achievement.
Mrs Carson: Welcome. Thank you for your presentation. We have discussed academic achievements and how you are to bring them together into some sort of credit. I should be interested to know how you see industry gaining from the use of credit accumulation.
Prof Roebuck: Dr Egerton has already spoken of the number of large firms in the Province with whom we are already directly engaged. It is also worth bearing in mind that we are in contact with a great many small- and medium-sized enterprises. There is a particular example from engineering which you might want to say something about. There is one general point: your Chairman, in a press release a few days ago, talked about ladders of opportunity. That is an entirely right and proper way of looking at it. However, we should perhaps like to change the word "ladder" to "lattice".
It is not just upwards, it is across as well, and it is already beginning to happen. When people are educating and training themselves, it is no longer in just one institution. They may be taking some of their learning from an educational institution, some from the Internet or from the Open University or be taking an accredited programme put on by a particular firm. We are trying to create a system in which the various approaches to learning are encapsulated and brought together rather than remaining separate as they are currently.
Secondly, in industry, often you do not want somebody to do a degree or even a year-long course, but you want them to do a concentrated chunk of specific professional training, and you will get them to do it more readily and make them more enthusiastic about it if you accredit it and get it recorded so that they can build an edifice from it. At present, employers recognise the short courses that their staff take to a degree, but they are often left adrift. However, if they were formally accredited by a central agency according to a clearly understood system, they would constitute building blocks for a larger achievement.
The Chairperson: Thank you very much. That has been very interesting and useful, and I like the picture of the lattice in addition to the more traditional idea of the educational ladder, which most of us have probably grown up with. We will have to give consideration to that. Thank you also for the background notes and material. I have little doubt that we will be returning to you in the future. We wish you well in your continuing work.
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