We’re probably not telling you anything you don’t already know if we say that applying to university is kind of a big deal for 17- and 18-year-olds. A great deal of agonising goes into the process. Agonising about both picking the right degree course and institution, and about getting the necessary grades to meet any offers. After all, this is the next three years of your life, right?

Well… not necessarily. Or at least, not anymore. The Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, has recently announced plans to greatly enhance the “portability” of degree qualifications. This will bring UK Higher Education much more into line with systems in North America, for example, where it’s relatively commonplace for students to transfer mid-degree between institutions. UCAS, the university admissions service, will support this change by allowing students to search for mid-degree transfer opportunities.

This is undoubtedly a student-centred move. It should make life much easier for students whose circumstances change, leaving them unable to complete a three-year stint at the university to which they were originally admitted. But in an era of cutthroat market competition between universities, the planned changes have also led to reports that universities are set to “poach” mid-degree students from other institutions. Below we look at some of the benefits and drawbacks to portability.

The benefits and drawbacks for students

The availability and relative ease of qualification portability promised by these proposals is excellent news for students who, for a variety of reasons, are unwilling or unable to continue to study at the university where they started. Homesickness, stress, and depression are all perfectly valid reasons why a student might not wish to continue a university experience that has failed to live up to their expectations. And a lot can change in three years: a sick relative, financial worries, or any of a wide range of factors, could mean a student’s circumstances going into their second or final year could look very different than they did when they started. Previously a student in such circumstances might have been forced to start their degree over if they wanted to pursue it at a different institution – or simply drop out and see all their hard work go to waste. It’s therefore good news for all kinds of students in less than ideal circumstances that transferring credits between institutions is set to become easier.

There are a number of more strategic reasons why students might want to switch institutions too. For those who have narrowly missed out on a place on their preferred course of study because they didn’t get the A Level results they expected, the ability to transfer may offer them a second chance: a record of outstanding academic success in the first year of a programme at a less preferred institution might well prefer admissions tutors at the first-choice institution that the student is, after all, worthy of a place.

This, though, is where some of the implications start to look a little less desirable. For all the talk of students “trading up” to a better institution, it remains a fact – and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future – that not all universities have the same academic expectations. And, that a first year in any given subject at institution A may only bear a vague similarity to that at institution B. Students who “trade up” to universities with higher academic standards – or simply to the second year of a program that differs considerably from the one they started – may find themselves struggling to keep up.

And the added uncertainty that may arise from being forced to take “stick-or-twist” decisions about your degree course midway through is another cause for concern. Students develop strong identifications with their universities and their social networks often centre around the campus they’ve come to consider as home. Internal or external pressures to ditch all that because “better” options are available may add to undergraduates’ already considerable stress loads.

What about for universities?

This really depends on where the institution is in the “food chain.” For more desirable universities, the option to poach the best-performing students from less prestigious institutions is likely to be an extremely attractive one. The ability to pass on promising students who didn’t quite make the grade, and then subsequently to revisit that decision if their first-year performance exceeds expectations, is a luxury that historically admissions tutors simply haven’t had. But there are concerns that this system could be abused to form a kind of admissions “backdoor”. Institutions would be allowed to maintain their stringent entry requirements for first-year admissions – and the prestige that goes along with such stringent requirements – but also to swell their ranks, and hence their takings, with less capable, mid-degree students.

Perhaps the greatest concern, though, is over less prestigious universities. They often play host to greater numbers of students from their local communities and tend to invest a lot of effort in their teaching practice. There is concern they will become “feeder” institutions, and be penalised for their own successes if their best students are routinely enticed away by better-ranked institutions.