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Evaluation of the Impact of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF)

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CHAPTER THREE: EXISTING RESEARCH ON QUALIFICATION FRAMEWORKS

3.1 At least three areas of research literature are relevant to the SCQF, in addition to the existing research and development on the SCQF itself.

INTERNATIONAL LITERATURE ON QUALIFICATIONS FRAMEWORKS

3.2 Several other countries have introduced qualification frameworks, or are in the process of doing so, and there has been interest from international organisations including the Commonwealth, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ( OECD) and the European Union. Much of the literature on qualifications frameworks consists of analyses, evaluations and supporting studies for particular national frameworks. The countries which have been most intensively studied include New Zealand (Mikuta 2002, Philips 2003, Strathdee 2003), South Africa (Cosser 2001, Allais 2003), Australia (Keating 2003), Ireland ( NQAI 2003) and the countries of the United Kingdom, where the most important frameworks include National/Scottish Vocational Qualifications (Raggatt and Williams 1999), the Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales ( CQFW) ( ELWA 2003), the planned Framework for Achievement ( QCA 2004a, 2004b) and earlier Scottish sub-frameworks such as the Action Plan (Black et al. 1991, Croxford et al. 2001) and National Qualifications (Raffe et al. 2005) as well as the SCQF itself. Some of these national case studies have been collected in volumes for an international readership edited by Young (2003a) and Donn and Davies (2003). In a series of papers Young (2001, 20002, 2003b, 2005) has attempted to synthesise some of the evidence from the experience of national qualification frameworks in different countries. Deane and Watters (2004) review some of the issues in a paper prepared for a European Union conference hosted by the Irish Presidency. The OECD (2004) has investigated national qualifications frameworks as one strand of its activity on The Role of National Qualifications Systems in Promoting Lifelong Learning. UK participation in this activity has involved England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not Scotland.

3.3 Deane and Watters (2004, p.85) draw on the OECD work to define two types of qualifications frameworks: 'A conceptual... framework may include a philosophical rationale underpinning the approach to qualifications, core principles and operating guidelines... A technical... framework usually includes a classification of qualifications according to a set of criteria for levels of learning achieved.' They note that 'while all countries have a qualifications system and many have at least a conceptual qualifications framework, not all have developed technical frameworks'. A later publication of the OECD used this definition of a technical framework to define all qualifications frameworks (2004, p.6). Young (2005, p.16) refers to a broader range of criteria, in addition to levels of learning. These include: a single set of criteria for describing or defining qualifications; the use of learning outcomes to describe qualifications; benchmarks for assessing learning; classification in terms of occupational fields; units; and volume measured by notional learning hours. He notes that not all frameworks possess all these features.

3.4 An important theme of the international research is the range of different purposes which qualifications frameworks may pursue. A distinction is commonly made between enabling frameworks (or frameworks of communication) and regulatory frameworks. Enabling frameworks such as the SCQF may provide a tool for change but do not themselves mandate change. The purposes of national qualifications frameworks may include:

  • to reform qualifications, for example so that they meet labour market needs more effectively;
  • to enhance the quality of education and training;
  • to promote parity of esteem and the integration of academic and vocational learning;
  • to bring coherence to systems or sub-systems of qualifications (especially vocational qualifications), and to make the relationships among qualifications clearer;
  • to support lifelong learning by promoting and clarifying opportunities for access and progression, and identifying alternative routes of entry, progression and exit;
  • to facilitate the recognition of skills and competences and support mobility of learners and workers;
  • to facilitate the involvement of stakeholders in learning, and especially in vocational education and training; and
  • to promote social and economic reconstruction. (Granville 2003, Deane and Watters 2004, Isaacs and Nkomo 2004, OECD 2004, Young 2005).

3.5 National qualifications frameworks vary according to their comprehensiveness and their tightness. The SCQF is a comprehensive framework: unlike many others, it includes higher education and academic qualifications and it aims to include informal learning. It is also a loose framework: the design rules or criteria which qualifications must satisfy to be in the SCQF are much looser than for most other frameworks (although its sub-frameworks such as NQs and SVQs are tighter). Qualifications frameworks designed as tight frameworks have usually been met with resistance, especially if they have also aimed to be comprehensive (for example by covering higher education as well as vocational training). They have typically responded by becoming either less tight, or less comprehensive, or both (Raggat and Williams 1999, Mikuta 2002, RSA 2003).

3.6 The OECD working group on national qualifications frameworks identified four conditions for their successful development and implementation: a legislative basis (possibly less relevant to an enabling framework such as the SCQF); co-operation among stakeholders; effective communication to the general public; and time ( OECD 2004, p.9). A recurring theme of the literature on qualifications frameworks is the long time they take to introduce, especially if they are based on co-operation and partnership. Successful frameworks tend to develop in an evolutionary and incremental way and to emphasise continuity and past experience. They must respect the dependence of qualifications upon 'communities of trust' and informal relationships which develop over a period of time (Young 2002, Granville 2003).

3.7 The Action Plan ( SED 1983), which modularised Scottish non-advanced vocational education in the 1980s, is perceived to be one of the earliest sources of inspiration for the current development of national qualifications frameworks (Young 2003b). Research into its impact on young people suggested that the 'intrinsic logic' of the modular reform, which encouraged flexible pathways and credit transfer, was often weaker than the 'institutional logic' generated by educational institutions, the labour market, funding and regulatory arrangements, and so on (Croxford et al. 1991, Raffe et al. 1994). Consequently the immediate impact on participation and on gender and other inequalities was limited. Recent writers have drawn on the distinction between intrinsic and institutional logics to argue that qualifications frameworks need to be complemented by measures to reform the institutional logic - for example, local institutional agreements to promote credit transfer, or encouragement to employers to reflect credit values in their selection processes. This is an illustration of another common theme in the international literature, the importance of policy breadth. This is defined as 'the extent to which the establishment of the framework is directly and explicitly linked with other measures to influence how the framework is used…. [T]he future policy breadth of the SCQF is a contested issue' (Raffe 2003a, p.242).

3.8 Several qualifications frameworks, notably those of New Zealand and South Africa as well as Higher Still in Scotland, have aimed to unify or integrate education and training. This has typically been a source of friction (Mikuta 2002, RSA 2002). Smithers (1997) and Ensor (2003) have argued that integrative qualifications frameworks fail to take account of epistemological differences between different knowledge structures and different forms of learning. However Raffe (2005) has argued that barriers to integration which are presented as epistemological may in fact often be political or institutional in character. Writing of the South African context, Heyns and Needham (2004) identify three sets of issues: the political power struggle between departments of education and labour; philosophical and epistemological issues; and the different understandings of an integrated framework by practitioners of education and training.

3.9 Some researchers have identified qualifications frameworks as an example of a more general trend towards the unification of academic and vocational learning. Raffe (2003b) distinguished a wide range of national strategies and unifying policy measures, but argued that they responded to three main pressures: the demands of economic competitiveness, social pressures, and internal systemic pressures arising from the need to coordinate increasingly complex education and training systems. He identified three main types of unification which he called curricular (developing integrated curricula), organisational (reducing the differences between tracks) and longitudinal (promoting seamless pathways through lifelong learning). Some qualifications frameworks have aimed to promote all three types of unification; others, including the SCQF, have been primarily concerned with the last type (longitudinal). The CES study of The Introduction of a Unified System of Post-Compulsory Education in Scotland examined Higher Still as an instance of the trend towards unification (Raffe et al. 2005). It concluded that Higher Still's attempt to introduce a unified system in Scotland was only partially successful, especially in post-school education, where the more rigid framework of new National Qualifications made it difficult to achieve full coverage. Instead many of the expectations for Higher Still have been transferred to the SCQF.

CREDIT

3.10 The UK research on credit systems has remained largely separate from the research on qualifications frameworks. In the early 1990s the concept of credit received a boost from the Further Education Unit's ( FEU) (1992) A Basis for Credit and the Robertson Report on credit in higher education Choosing to Change ( HEQC 1993). The Robertson Report was based on a series of research studies which mapped current institutional policies for credit in higher education. In a later article Robertson (1996) discussed the evolution of the concept of credit transfer from 'soft' to 'hard' and from 'minimalist' to 'maximalist' versions.

3.11 The FEU report was followed by a collection of articles which described current developments, mainly in post-16 education, and discussed how a more established national credit system might build on them (Tait 1993). The Learning and Skills Development Agency has continued the work of the FEU and the Further Education Development Agency ( FEDA), its predecessor bodies, in developing the concept and principles of credit systems and to review progress internationally and within the UK. The announcement that England would join the other countries of the UK and develop a credit framework for adults has given a further boost to this work ( QCA 2004a, 2004b, QCA/ LSC 2004). Tait (2003a, p.15) reviews UK developments, including the SCQF, and concludes that a 'single framework encompassing all achievement, from the basic levels to degrees and higher professional qualifications, is the logical way to proceed'. He identifies 'risks associated with credit developments and, in particular, concerns about complexity, proliferation of qualifications and units, management of information embracing expectations of entitlements for credit transfer' but concludes that 'the positive aspects outweigh the risks and perceived disadvantages'. He notes that current UK developments are converging on an agreed set of principles, namely that there should be:

  • several levels from entry to higher education,
  • credit based on achievement of learning outcomes,
  • credit values based on 'notional learning time',
  • units and qualifications varying in size, and
  • recognition that the credit framework does not by itself establish credit accumulation and credit transfer.

He also argues for central leadership to establish a common approach to credit across different sectors of education and across the countries of the UK (Tait, 2003b).

3.12 Whether credit accumulation and transfer occur may depend on the specific or general character of the credit: that is, on whether an individual's learning covers the specific outcomes required for these purposes or merely meets the general criteria of level and volume. It may also depend on the confidence that is placed in the assessment and quality procedures associated with this learning, and on whether there are relationships of trust between the bodies which award credit and those which are asked to recognise it. The importance of trust as the basis of credit systems has been recognised by many current developments, including that of the European vocational credit system. In a project commissioned to support the European system, Coles and Oates (2004) have developed the concept of 'zones of mutual trust' and explored the conditions necessary for such zones to be effective. By contrast the Framework for Achievement being introduced in England aims to make credit recognition and transfer automatic ( QCA 2004).

3.13 Research on credit systems has tended to focus more on the design and development of credit systems than on their impact. An exception is Davies and Bynner's (1999) study of the effects of credit systems on learners, with a particular emphasis on the London Open College Network. They confirmed that such credit arrangements attracted a large number of 'non-traditional' learners. The main focus of the project was the impact of credit-based systems on learning cultures; they found evidence of positive effects on cultures at both learner and institutional levels. They also found no evidence of negative effects of the nature of learning outcomes on the learning experience. Some commentators have raised fears about the commodification of learning in credit systems (Ainley 1997).

3.14 In the 1990s one of the most developed credit systems in the UK was the CREDIS framework in Wales (Reynolds 2001), a forerunner of the current Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales ( CQFW). As far as we are aware CREDIS has not been the study of a systematic, independent evaluation.

3.15 Qualifications frameworks, and especially credit frameworks, have often been based on a unitised structure of qualifications. A recent review of unitisation by Hart and Howieson (2004) found that there was relatively little hard evidence on its impact. Some of the claimed benefits of unitisation, such as making learning more attractive to adult learners and supporting qualifications development, were supported by their review. Others, such as rationalisation and simplification, were not.

FE- HE LINKS

3.16 Compared with other comprehensive frameworks the SCQF is distinguished by the leading role which universities have played in its development. Much of the debate surrounding the use of the SCQF for credit recognition and transfer has focused on the interface between Further and Higher Education ( FE/ HE). A distinctive tradition of higher education has developed in the FE colleges in Scotland. This has been built up around Higher National Certificates ( HNCs) and Higher National Diplomas ( HNDs) rather than franchised degrees and now over 20% of all full-time undergraduate level students study in FE colleges (Sharp and Gallacher, 1996; Gallacher, 2003). It has also been established that these colleges have considerable success in attracting students from areas of social and economic deprivation and the proportions of students from these areas are far higher in the FE colleges than in universities (Raab and Small, 2003). There is evidence that many students now progress from HNC/Ds to degrees, and there are strong links between the further education colleges ( FECs) and HEIs, and the recent Mapping Tracking and Bridging Project has shown the extent of the links between the FE colleges and HEIs. However despite an increasing policy interest in strengthening the links between the two sectors (Scottish Parliament, 2002; Scottish Executive, 2003a), these developments have been largely unplanned, their impact continues to be uneven (Gallacher, 2002), and a number of barriers have continued to make progression difficult for students (Maclennan et al, 2000). As a result some critics have described these developments as creating an academic ghetto, in which opportunities for disadvantaged 'non traditional' students continue to be limited (Osborne et al. 2000; Field, 2004). In this context there has been considerable interest in the potential impact of SCQF on improving articulation links between colleges and universities and creating enhanced opportunities for credit transfer.

RESEARCH ON THE SCQF

3.17 There are several published accounts of the SCQF and its development, many of them mainly descriptive in focus. Menmuir (2003) describes the development of the SCQF and the challenges it presents for initial and continuing teacher education. Ponton (2003) describes the SCQF for a Commonwealth audience, and lists challenges for the next three years.

3.18 Raffe (2003a) has described the introduction of the SCQF from the perspective of 'unification' as part of the IUS project described earlier, up to the launch of its implementation phase. Its early development was characterised by incrementalism, voluntarism, partnership and pragmatism. However, these characteristics would be placed under pressure during the implementation phase and especially when the framework expanded to include a wider range of qualifications. This has been associated with a number of development projects which has included work with the FE colleges, the social services sector, professional bodies, community based adult learning, and on the recognition of prior learning ( RPL). There has also been the associated Mapping, Tracking and Bridging Project, undertaken under the auspices of the Scottish Advisory Committee on Credit and Access ( SACCA), which has been designed to strengthen links between the FE colleges and HEIs.

3.19 Finally, the literature includes international perspectives on the SCQF. Young (2005) identifies the SCQF as one of the 'success stories' of national qualifications frameworks, and argues that it demonstrates 'the importance of continuity and building on past experience'. Three features of the SCQF have contributed to this: its incrementalism, its policy breadth and the leading role of universities. Writing for a southern African audience, Tuck et al. (2004) claim that the development of qualifications frameworks over the past 20 years in Scotland has greatly improved progression routes, made the system more flexible and improved the status of vocational education and training. Tait (2003a) identifies the SCQF, along with other UK frameworks, as a source of lessons for England.