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Executive summary

Purpose

1. This report analyses first (bachelors) degree students who transfer between higher education institutions (HEIs) in England, but who continue to study in the same subject area. It explores three main research questions:

  1. How does the scale of student transfers vary across institutions and student groups?
  2. Which students are more likely to transfer academic credit?
  3. What are the qualification rates for students who transfer and how do these compare with students who continue in the same institution?

Background

2. The majority of full-time first degree students qualify from the higher education provider that they start their course with. However, some students want or need to change their provider and so switch between institutions during their degree. Some transferring students take academic credit with them and progress to a higher year of study at their new institution, but others repeat years or start afresh. The extent to which students make these different types of transfer has been previously unexplored, but is an important question as it sheds light upon the degree of flexibility in the sector and how this may differ for some students, studying some subjects and in some locations.

Key points

3. Overall, between 1.5 and 2 per cent of UK-domiciled first degree students in England transfer between institutions, but stay in the same subject area. This is approximately 4,000 to 5,000 students each year. Approximately two-thirds of these students start again in the first year of study, while the rest progress to a higher year of study. Since the latter group can be assumed to be a reasonable proxy for the extent to which students transfer academic credit, it appears that academic credit transfer is relatively uncommon.

Who transfers between HEIs?

4. Notwithstanding the small scale of inter-institutional transfers, analysis of these transfers reveals patterns concerning which students are more likely to transfer and the nature of the transfers they undertake. It shows that:

  1. Approximately 6 per cent of transferring students become distance learners and almost one in four return to their parental or own residence.
  2. Transfer rates vary across institutions, and are highest in London, where the greater density of HEIs is believed to reduce the logistical and social costs of transferring.
  3. Students attending HEIs with a low entry tariff are most likely to transfer and those at high-tariff HEIs least likely. Few students transfer into a high-tariff HEI if they have not previously attended one.

Who transfers academic credit?

5. Between 2012-13 and 2014-15, 29 per cent of students transferring between HEIs but remaining in the same subject area went into the second year at their new institution. Students who transfer into year two are assumed to be more likely to be transferring academic credit than those who switch into year one. We use regression analysis to examine the likelihood with which transferring students move into year two, identifying a number of factors that correlate to the likelihood with which a student undertakes credit transfer. These are as follows:

  1. Male, black and Asian students are less likely to transfer academic credit. Controlling for other factors, male students are an estimated 2.6 percentage points less likely to transfer into year two than female students, while black and Asian students are an estimated 7.5 and 5.7 percentage points less likely to transfer into year two than white students.
  2. Students attending high-tariff institutions are less likely to transfer credit.
  3. Students who switch their mode of study to part-time or who move home are more likely to transfer credit.

How well do transferring students do?

6. The qualifying rates for students who transfer are worse than for those who continue at the same HEI. 94 per cent of students who continue into year two at the same institution go on to qualify within six years. This compares with 67 per cent for students who transfer into year two at a different HEI, and 72 per cent for those who transfer into year one.

7. The relationship between transferring and qualifying is conditional on controlling for first-year performance and whether the student switches to part-time study. Students who switch to part-time study are much less likely to qualify, as are those who do not pass all of their year one modules. Controlling for these and other factors, students who transfer into year two are somewhat more likely to qualify than those who transfer into year one, but overall we estimate that students who transfer are 10 to 11 percentage points less likely to qualify than those who continue at the same HEI. However, there is no counterfactual analysis of how these students would have performed had they not transferred and so it cannot be inferred that the act of transferring reduces the likelihood of qualifying.

8. Overall, the limited scale of transfer indicates that, while more might be done to enable flexibility and choice for students once they have started a first degree, further research into the reasons why students might wish to transfer, and the barriers to and enablers of transfer is required to provide sufficient additional evidence to inform policy.

Action required

9. This document is for information only.

Date: 25 October 2017

Ref: 2017/26

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Student opportunity, Planning

Enquiries should be directed to:

Rebecca Finlayson, tel 0117 9317407, email r.finlayson@hefce.ac.uk, or Quantitative Analysis for Policy Team, email qapt@hefce.ac.uk