I. Introduction

Shanghai Academic Credit Transfer and Accumulation Bank for Lifelong Education, the first provincial level credit bank in China, was officially inaugurated in July 2012.

A series of similar institutions have since been established in the provinces of Yunnan, Jiangsu, Guangdong, and Fujian, and those in Tianjin, Hunan, Hubei and Sichuan. The academic credit transfer and accumulation bank for lifelong learning mainly functions as a credit management and service institution engaged in credit recognition, accumulation and transfer for local residents in lifelong education. In addition to the credit bank for lifelong education, China also has a credit bank for citizens, the main function of which is to record and encourage lifelong learning; a credit bank for school associations, to achieve inter-school credit transfer, resource sharing, and course selection,; a credit bank for adult higher education institutions that connects degree education and vocational qualification certificates; a credit bank for vocational schools to promote diversified learner evaluation; and a credit bank for enterprises that features a flexible training management system.

There are a number of different interpretations of the concept and functions of the credit bank. A review of nearly one thousand research papers shows that the current interpretations of the concept of the credit bank can be summed up as follows. In terms of level, the credit bank can be constructed at the school, regional or national level. In terms of function, school credit banks mainly focus on the implementation of a perfect credit system, a flexible learning system, and a course and examination exemption system. Regional credit banks aim to realise the recognition, accumulation and transfer of learning results from various types of education;The national credit bank is designed to build a lifelong education “overpass” that is vertically and horizontally connected to achieve connection and communication between various types of education. In terms of property, the credit bank can be understood as an education management system, education management model, or special management institution. As an education management system, the credit bank refers to a new kind of learning and education management system whose main constituent parts are credit recognition, accumulation and transfer among different types of education (including different courses of different forms of degree education and non-degree education); as an education management model, the credit bank refers to the recognition, transfer and accumulation of credits obtained by learners whether through regular or irregular learning channels, and the permission for learners to “exchange” formal education, academic degree, vocational or job position certificates or even other learning results; as a special management institution, the credit bank refers to a management and service platform to promote the recognition, accumulation and transfer of credits. These three properties are not in contradiction. Instead, they are mutually connected systematic concepts of the credit bank formulated in line with certain logics. It can be seen that the “credit bank” is usually established first. The management model is then explored, and a system established at the last stage of the process. The credit bank therefore represents a comprehensive concept. Most research projects take “the recognition, accumulation and transfer of credits” as the basic function of the credit bank, no matter whether the study is theoretical or practical, and whether it is oriented towards system, model or institution. Furthermore, they conclude that other functions are derived from the three basic major functions.

The credit bank is regarded by many people as a panacea. Reformers of higher education hope that the credit bank can help realise the reform of perfect credit system; practitioners of open education hope that the credit bank can establish an open education system like the credit bank of the Republic of Korea; practitioners of vocational education hope that the credit bank can realise a link between secondary and tertiary vocational education, as well as the connection of vocational education with other types of education; and researchers of foreign education hope that the credit bank can achieve a credit transfer system similar to the European Credit Transfer System, carry on the recognition of irregular and informal learning results, and establish a national qualification framework system like that of the UK. It appears that the credit bank may break the pattern of going their own way and closing to each other in the field of education, and many scholars also maintain that the credit bank may encourage lifelong learning, and be responsible for the quality certification and supervision of various types of education. Many believe that the credit bank can do anything, which has become too heavy a burden for its constructors.

II. Challenges in practice

Seen from the perspective of constructing a lifelong education system, the credit bank should be managed at the regional or national level. The construction of a regional credit bank aims to build an “overpass” for lifelong education, to establish a certification system of learning results, and to promote the connection and linkage of various types of education at different levels. Although theoretical researchers have unanimously high expectations for the meaning and significance of the credit bank as an “overpass”, a number of scholars have expressed concern about its implementation. For example, Wu Jun maintains that the main body of the credit bank is ambiguous, that it is hard to break through the technological obstacles of credit conversion, and that it is fairly difficult to remove the barriers for credit transfer among schools. On the other hand, Yang Chen believes that there are obstacles in the respects of system, institution and school. The following is an analysis of the challenges facing the construction of a regional credit bank from the perspective of its three basic functions.

(I) Unclear main body for credit recognition

Before discussing the credit recognition functions of the credit bank, it is necessary to differentiate the meanings of “certification” and “recognition”.“Certification” is generally related to “learning results” and “vocational qualifications”, and it mainly refers to learning evaluation, and the judgment of whether a learner’s learning or capacity results fully or partly meet the corresponding standards. “Recognition” is generally related to “credit” and mainly refers to whether the amount of the students’ learning measured by credits meets the corresponding course standards. Certification emphasises validity evaluation, while recognition signifies acceptation and identification with the meaning of quantification. Therefore, credit recognition usually indicates that learning results can be recognised as the credits of a given training scheme and specific course system in the credit system.

However, seen from a practical standpoint, the credit bank itself is not the main body issuing certificates. It has no right to confer academic degrees, evaluate qualifications or issue certificates; it also does not implement teaching. There are no training schemes or course systems that match the academic degrees, qualifications or certificates. Therefore, the credit bank should not be the main body for credit recognition because there is no standard for credit recognition without training schemes or course systems; and credit recognition is meaningless without the qualification to issue certificates. Therefore, it is hard for established regional credit banks to implement recognition work. However, based on the concept of bank exchange settlement, some researchers believe that credit recognition indicates that the credit bank recognises the learning results of different education types in the credit bank standard system in exchange for standard credits, thus realising the transfer of different credits among various types of education and different institutions. However, this raises a number of questions. How can we establish an internal standard system that includes various forms of education and all types of learning results? How does the credit bank recognise the standard credits of learning results from different forms of education? How should learners have their credits recognised as standard credits instead of recognising directly the credits of educational institutions? Credit recognition not only takes into consideration the amount of learning but also the learning process and quality, and it is thus impractical to establish a unified and complete recognition standard system. Shanghai Academic Credit Transfer and Accumulation Bank for Lifelong Education initially attempted a similar recognition system but failed to continue.

(II) Disability in credit accumulation

It is not hard to understand credit accumulation, and almost all learners believe that the credit bank should have this type of “saving” function. By relying on the approach of information technology and database technology, each regional credit bank can accumulate credits. From the perspective of technology, this is possibly the easiest to achieve among the three major functions of the credit bank. However, credit accumulation is not merely recording data; it also deals with two other problems. One is what kind of credit accumulation can be included in the credit bank, and the other is how the accumulated credits can be entered into the credit bank.

Regarding what kind of credit accumulation can be included in the credit bank, the difficulty lies in the large number of irregular and informal learning results. Many scholars believe that the credit bank should build the framework, formulate the standards, and establish the system for leaning result certification by drawing on the achievements of foreign qualification frameworks and existing learning certification. The certification of irregular and informal learning results is organised and conducted in order to realise a connection between formal and irregular and informal learning. However, it is necessary to ask how the credit bank can formulate certification standards for the great variety of complicated learning results. How can the credit bank certify the irregular and informal learning results of thousands of learners? This seems to be an unrealisable objective.

In terms of how to enter the credits into the credit bank, most regional credit banks use collective saving and individual saving. Almost all credit banks have established their own branch system, offering learners the ability to recognise and save their learning results. The problem is that learning results are not like currency, which can be identified as real or fake by special instruments. How can the credit bank window identify learners’ individual information? How can we ensure that learning results are true and reliable? Will the credit bank become a shortcut for creating false diplomas if there are loopholes in the authenticity of the data source? In fact, the re is cause for concern surrounding current appraisal and identification technology.

(III) Insufficient need for credit transfer

The term credit transfer can have two meanings. One is transfer of credits between different educational institutions in the same education field, which is mainly used to achieve credit recognition and transfer among universities via the credit bank; and the other is the transfer of credits between different education fields, which is mainly used to transfer learning results among degree education, vocational training and other types of education. However, these credit transfers can be completed even when there is no credit bank. For example, the provincial and municipal education departments of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai have signed a tri-party agreement on Mutual Credit Recognition among Universities of the Yangtze River Delta to promote credit recognition among undergraduate universities in the region. There are a number of similar university cooperation and education alliances, and a corresponding number of different credit recognition models, including cross-university course selection, cooperative training of students by offering minor courses, student exchange, and exemption from course learning. Explorations into credit transfer among different types of education have also been made in each region. For example, the vocational training certificates recognised by degree education in 25 of the 29 adult universities of Shanghai can be transferred among all adult universities; the recognised certificates of degree education are mainly for English and Computer Science. These “systems of exemption from learning or examination” are common in regular higher education.

However, credit transfer isn’t as widely popular as expected. The need for credit transfer is insufficient, which can be seen in two aspects. One is the insufficient need for credit transfer itself. Though each region actively attempts resource sharing, cross-school course selection, and cooperative education operation, there is still a lack of support for mutual credit recognition. Guangzhou University City initiated the “mutual selection of courses and mutual recognition of credits” in 2003, but less than 3,000 students had participated in course selection by 2011, accounting for only 2% of total active students. In autumn 2016, only 28 courses have been released by 10 union universities for 1,575 students. The European Credit Transfer System and the Distance Learning and the Transfer of Academic Credits of Southern Regional Education Board of the U.S. are designed to meet the needs of learners who want to transfer to another school. By contrast, the strict entrance examination system and registration management system in China make it almost impossible for students to float. Furthermore, active students in regular universities generally don’t have any other education experience, whereas the other learners haven’t experienced the college entrance examination. This leads to the embarrassing situation wherein “active students in school have no certificates and it is hard for those with certificates to enter school”, and there are few credit transfers between regular higher education and other types of education. Credit transfer among different types of education almost always occurs between adult higher education and vocational training, involving only a few people. Taking the School of Continuing Education of Fudan University as an example, in the spring semester of 2016, only 101 learners transferred credits. On the other hand, it seems that the relevant parties for credit transfer don’t have a great need for the credit bank, including both education institutions and learners. The credit transfer system does not have a clear target. Learners almost always go directly to their education institutions for credit transfer, and no credit bank is needed during the process. Similarly, few learners autonomously apply for the credit transfer of degree education at Shanghai Academic Credit Transfer and Accumulation Bank for Lifelong Education. Since its operation, only over 130 learners have applied for credit transfer.

What are the solutions to the above challenges? The author believes that administrative measures or policy promotion alone are not enough. At present, all the regional credit banks aim to build a lifelong education “overpass” that is vertically and horizontally connected. Their major functions are the recognition, accumulation and transfer of credits through administrative promotion. The credit bank is expected to work on the management, implementation and evaluation of the credit transfer so as to realise the connection of various types of education at all levels. Within China’s traditional government management model, long-term centralised administrative management has resulted in administrative fragmentation among different institutions, demonstrating the closure and separation among various types of education and education institutions in the education field. This is obviously based on placing hopes on the credit bank to realise the linkage and connection of different departments through administrative measures. In other words, if the situation of each doing things in their own way and separating from each other in the education field can be dealt with only by administrative promotion, the problem should have been solved before the credit bank was established.

III. The construction of regional credit banks from the perspective of synergetic governance

Synergetic governance is a new model for the administration of social public affairs, and is the sum total of the great many common affairs managed by individuals, and various public and private institutions. It represents a consistent aim to harmonise the interests of different bodies and take coordinated actions, including not only formal systems and rules with legal restrictions, but also various kinds of informal institutional arrangements that brings about consultation and reconciliation. Synergetic governance highlights the diversified main bodies, the coordinated process and the equality of all main bodies, and represents a reassessment of the traditional work mode. Under the guidance of synergetic governance, the construction of the credit bank could have a new model.

(I) Open thinking, a reassessment of the orientation of the credit bank

Open thinking is the main model of synergetic governance, emphasising open transparency, collaborative participation, decentralisation, and multiple main bodies. During the process of credit bank construction, the main bodies should reassess the credit bank with open thinking and consider whether it serves the government or society. If it belongs to the government, various institutions can completely ignore or passively cope with the relevant administrative orders. The assessment index for the credit bank with the government as the main body is always directed to government performance, ignoring actual needs and effectiveness. In the credit bank system, all the institutions that operate education, provide training, and issue certificates are entitled with the independent rights by law, and they are the real main bodies in the recognition, accumulation and transfer of credits. The construction of the credit bank should be diversified, involving various types of educational institutions. The department in charge should abandon the administrative work style of taking on everything, and change such administrative functions as the orientation of the “overpass”, the process of credit recognition and transfer into information services, and business guidance and policy support for connecting different types of education. The credit bank is not the implementer but the promoter to connect various types of education at all levels. It enables educational institutions to participate in communication and connection with an attitude of “openness, equality, coordination, and sharing”.

(II) Platform thinking, a reconsideration of the function of the credit bank

Synergetic governance is achieved through the process of consultation, and all kinds of platforms play an important role in the consultation. Platform thinking aims to create a win-win ecological circle for all. All the parties exchange opinions, save costs, improve efficiency, cooperate, and achieve win-win results on the platform. Some people say that the credit bank is also a platform i.e. a service platform for credit transfer. One end connects the overwhelming majority of learners and the other end connects various types of educational institutions, helping learners to achieve the recognition and transfer of credits. However, this paper maintains that this is just one of the platform functions of the credit bank. The most important functions are still bridging exchanges, cooperation and collaboration among various types of educational institutions. This helps educational institutions to achieve balance and integration through dialogue, consultation, and compromise. The credit bank should gather various types of educational institutions at all levels, build a cooperative community backed by specialties and oriented towards learning results, construct a cooperative exchange platform for credit recognition and transfer, work together to formulate the corresponding standards for credit recognition, accumulation, and transfer, and promote the connection of various types of learning results with various educational institutions at all levels. The key to platform thinking is also determined by the necessity of the credit bank to establish a specific mechanism and model to bring into play the initiative of various educational institutions at all levels to the maximum degree. Only when the credit bank works well as a platform for cooperation and exchange can the platform of credit transfer for learners and educational institutions be well constructed.

(III) Data thinking, a new understanding of the needs for the credit bank

Synergetic governance requires information sharing and communication among the main bodies. As part of the past management process, data analysis is more of a kind of post explanation or forecast of the future. In the era of big data, data analysis has become a dynamic monitoring and real-time decision-making measure, and almost the entire management process can be digitised. Therefore, as long as there is reasonable consultation, various types of educational institutions at all levels can upload their teaching content, teaching process and examination requirements and other information of specialties, courses or certificates to the credit bank platform for intercommunication and sharing so as to offer evidence for credit recognition and transfer among them. Various educational institutions at all levels can also lead information of the learning results of the learners in the credit bank to ensure the truth of the credits through consultation. Shanghai Academic Credit Transfer and Accumulation Bank for Lifelong Education has started these tasks and 132 institutions including regular universities, tertiary vocational colleges, schools of continuing education in regular universities, adult higher education institutions and online colleges have successively lead the learners school reports in the credit bank. By June 12, 2016, the credit bank had saved a total of 40,291,392 course reports. Learners can check their original credits or learning results through the credit bank, acquire service and guidance on learning result recognition and transfer, find channels for credit transfer, and define the direction for continuous learning. Though there is only a minimal requirement for credit recognition and transfer to learners who learn through regular channels, more and more individual and customised learning needs will be further explored and satisfied with the improvement of data gathering and processing ability, and the cost decrease of credit transfer so as to provide learning opportunities and channels for all learners.

(IV) Service thinking, a redefinition of the business of the credit bank

In the era of customer first, service thinking is essential. It influences all aspects of society and economy, and the transition of the government administration model as well i.e. to change from a regulation-oriented government into a service-oriented government. Similarly, the credit bank needs to change its control thinking into service thinking, and strengthen its service function. The credit bank serves two objectives: various types of educational institutions at all levels and the overwhelming majority of learners. The credit bank can provide the educational institutions with the following services: a platform for various types of educational institutions at all levels to carry out credit cooperation; share and jointly develop regulations and standards for the recognition and transfer of learning results; hold workshops and forums to exchange experience of credit recognition and transfer; give educational institutions business guidance for learning credit recognition and transfer; find individual files for lifelong learning; provide data services for credit transfer among educational institutions; assist various types of educational institutions in learning result recognition and transfer; and to try to win policy support to various irregular and informal learning result recognition and transfer.

The credit bank provides learners with the following services: searching for individual files for lifelong learning through centralised guidance; reference and proofing services for original learning results; information on the credit recognition and transfer regulations of various types of educational institutions; consultation and guidance on the recognition and transfer of learning; assistance for credit transfer applications; and information on credit recognition and transfer services. Therefore, the best evaluation of the credit bank is not to find out how many learners have made credit transfers via the credit bank, but to evaluate the role the credit bank plays in promoting the recognition and transfer of credits within the region.

(V) User thinking, a rearrangement of the process of the credit bank

User thinking is similar to service thinking. User thinking, in brief, is to provide the users with a perfect experience centred around the needs of the users and from their perspective. As far as the credit bank is concerned, the users are those learners who are in need of credit recognition and transfer. The credit bank must seriously consider which group needs credit recognition and transfer. What kind of difficulties will they encounter in the course of credit recognition and transfer? What kind of services and help do they need? The credit bank has to make a decision based on an analysis of big data, integrating the analysis into the business process and simplifying it. This means that the details are more refined and the service is more humanised. For example, the registration and the real-name recognition process have to be made as simple as possible to realise one-step registration; the inquiry process has to be as accurate as possible so as to be able to find out exactly what learning results can be recognised or transferred to what kinds of certificates or credits; the process for credit recognition and transfer has to be as easy as possible, and the application for the recognition and transfer has to be simple and responsive; the service support and consultation process has to be as meticulous as possible, providing web page navigation, a telephone hotline, real-time consultation, and other services. Attention should be given to the experience of the learners in each link, and the entire process of the business of the credit bank fully embodies the philosophy of “user experience first”.

Within the “vertically and horizontally connected” lifelong education system, various types of educational institutions at all levels consist of a number of nodes in the website system, and each educational institution represents one node, which is highly autonomous. Any node can be a phased centre, which is correlated with other nodes but this is not mandatory. The nodes are freely connected with one another, providing passages for the recognition and transfer of learning results. This is the kind of open, equal and coordinated system structure that can become the lifelong education “overpass” pursued by the credit bank. The credit bank should change from “rowing the boat” to “steering the boat,” from constructer and implementer to driver and promoter, helping learners to realise the recognition and transfer of learning results, and providing the educational institutions and learners with service and support.

Source: Open Education Research
ZHOU Jingjing, SUN Yaoting, CI Longyu

Institute of Vocational & Education, East China Normal University

Shanghai Academic Credit Transfer and Accumulation Bank for Lifelong Learning

Shanghai Open University