Select Committee on European Union Written Evidence

Memorandum by Dr Paolo Dardanelli Lecturer in European Politics and responsible for four-year programmes, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent

  1.  In relation to the Sub-Committee request for information from individuals having direct experience of current EU education and training programmes, I would like to comment on the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS). I have several years of experience dealing with four-year undergraduate degrees involving one year spent in another European country. I present these comments in a personal capacity.

  2.  Increasing student mobility between EU countries is one of the central objectives of EU action in the field of higher education. As far as the UK is concerned, mobility usually takes place in the framework of four-year BAs including the study of a major European language—French, Spanish, German, Italian being the most popular—under which students spend the third year at a partner university in a country where their chosen language is spoken. Marks obtained in this year abroad are then "translated" into UK grades and incorporated into the student's record. They then contribute to the student's final degree classification.

  3.  Given the need to "translate" workload and marks from another system into the UK system, issues of equivalence and fairness naturally arise. The ECTS system was developed to address these issues and, quoting from the official documentation at my institution, "to provide common procedures to guarantee academic recognition of studies abroad. It provides a way of measuring and comparing learning and transferring them from one institution to another". The ECTS works on the basis of so-called "credits", which are intended to be a "common currency" with which to measure workloads and achievements. Quoting again from my institution's official documentation, "ECTS credits are a value allocated to module units to describe the student workload required to complete them. They reflect the quantity of work each module requires in relation to the total quantity of work required to complete a full year of academic study at the institution, that is lectures, practical work, seminars, private work—in the library or at home—and examinations and assessment activities".

  4.  While the intentions of the system are laudable, its operation is more problematic. Most universities across the European Union have now adopted the ECTS system but they appear to still measure student workloads differently so that ECTS credits although nominally equivalent still vary in practice so that 30 credits obtained at a Spanish university reflect a very different amount of work to 30 credits obtained at a British institution. The discrepancy appears to be greater between the UK system and the main continental ones than among the latter. It seems to be mainly due to the different way in which modules are delivered and, especially, to the different ways in which individual study is taken into account. In the French, Italian and Spanish systems, for instance, modules are entirely based on lectures and assessed mainly through exams in contrast to the greater balance between lectures and seminars and between exams and coursework in the British system. This leads to what appears to be the crux of the matter: individual study is fully factoring in in the British system while it is largely left out in the main continental systems. To take a fairly extreme case, for example, an MA module consisting of 24 contact hours is worth two ECTS credits at one of our French partner universities while our MA modules with 24 contact hours are worth 10 ECTS credits.

  5.  I believe the different ways in which ECTS credits are calculated fatally undermines the system and defies its purpose of, as seen above, providing a "common currency" for European higher education. In turn, this places a significant burden on those British institutions that are committed to expand their range of partnership with their continental counterparts and offer more and more British students the opportunity to study in another EU country within the framework of their degree. This runs directly counter the effort, enshrined in the Bologna process and other initiatives, to increased comparability and interchangeability throughout the European HE sector. The ECTS system, as currently implemented, needs urgent revision if it is to perform effectively its important function. Failure to address these problems would undermine all future endeavours in this field. Before embarking on new initiatives, I believe it is important that the European Commission and the relevant national authorities look at the ECTS system again.

10 January 2005

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