The text below is a brief outline of the basics of ECTS as a transfer and accumulation system. Beyond listing the understanding the european union a concise introduction pdf and practical elements of its implementation, this paper will demonstrate that ECTS is an integral part of a process that is defining the future of European higher education.
HEIs 2 – ECTS was initially launched as a pilot project in the ERASMUS programme of the European Community. It was supported by the European Commission, and ran between 1988 and 1994, in five selected disciplines, in 145 HEIs. As the name implies, ECTS was a tool for transfer and recognition of credits for studies abroad – a mechanism for students to receive credit for the work done at another HEI. Credits then were used to ensure the recognition of studies at a host institution, indicating the workload students had to invest for the successful completion of a study programme. Since its launch in 1988, the concept of ECTS has undergone significant transformations.
Recognizing the practical benefits of the system in terms of transparency and mobility, HEIs in the European Union and in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe, which have or in the near future will join the Bologna process, are now implementing the system. The most significant change in the system since the initial stages – besides its impressive geographical growth – is its expansion of scope. HEIs involved in the process are now implementing an ECTS that, though originally created as a transfer mechanism, now also functions as an accumulation system 3 – something that was envisaged in the Prague Communique 4. As a credit transfer and accumulation system, ECTS facilitates the implementation of five fundamental Bologna concepts in higher education: comparability, transparency, mobility, quality and coherence in study programmes. ECTS facilitates the implementation of five fundamental Bologna concepts in higher education: comparability, transparency, mobility, quality and coherence in study programmes. The comparability of study programmes is the basic rationale for ECTS.
ECTS facilitates the comparison of diverse study systems and contexts at a disciplinary, institutional, national and international level. It does this through the recognition of periods of study, at an appropriate level and content, in a flexible manner. It is not a system of standardisation or conformity. Comparability and transparency of studies facilitates mobility 7. A cornerstone in the Bologna process, mobility encompasses various dimensions and directions of education, operating within, between and outside of higher education institutions. A two-tier system of first- and second-cycle degrees allows vertical mobility, whereas horizontal mobility takes place within and between institutions, nationally and internationally, for both students and staff.
The two other key concepts – quality and coherence – in the context of ECTS require an insight into the actual implementation of ECTS through the definition and allocation of credits. Credit allocation can best be understood if examined in relation to the structure of study programmes. Generally, credit systems build on numerical values allocated to study programme units. Credits may be allocated on the basis of factors such as student workload, the number of contact hours, or learning outcomes. Certain national systems promote approaches that rely either on contact hours or learning outcomes only.
60 ECTS credits measure the workload of a typical student during one academic year. 12 A full academic year usually consists of 36-40 weeks of study, therefore, assuming that one week consists of approximately 40 working hours, one credit stands for roughly 25-30 student working hours. The allocation of credits to courses entails two equally important, complementary approaches. The first approach mandates that ECTS credits be allocated to courses on a top-down basis, that is, taking the full programme as a reference point. The second, bottom-up, approach draws on the idea that study programmes and courses must first be examined in view of their learning outcomes. For the meaningful allocation of credits, one must know what the learner is expected to be able to do after the successful completion of the course or programme.
The learning outcomes approach then provides for a realistic estimate of the relative workload necessary to achieve those outcomes – leading to a basis for credit allocation for each unit within the study programme. The first, top-down approach promotes a relative allocation of credits to courses in the context of the full study programme. The second, bottom-up approach requires a realistic estimate of student workload, both for individual course credit allocations, and for the entire study programme. Taking both approaches together requires a meaningful re-examination of the entire study programme and process – including specification of components such as learning outcomes, generic and discipline-specific competencies, assessment criteria and credit levels in course and curriculum design. Ultimately, this parallel, integrated approach is essential to prepare the ground for the accurate and meaningful allocation of credits, and for coherent, learner-focused, quality-based, transparent study programmes, better able to address both individual learner and wider societal needs.
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