ECTS Extension Feasibility Project

FULL REPORT  |  Annex1  |  Annex2  |  Annex3  |  Annex4
In February 1999 the European Commission (DG EAC) established a steering group to undertake a study on the possible development of the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) into a European Credit System allowing for accumulation and transfer within the LLL perspective.
The project was conceived as a feasibility study designed to be completed in a relatively short period. The members of the Steering Group gained feedback from their respective countries, regions or organisations and in total, over 200 individuals and organisations were consulted.
The report contains four sections: Introduction to the Report; Methodology; Main Findings; and Conclusions and Recommendations. There is also a full set of Appendices (pdf format) that contains: information on the membership of the steering group (1); the project terms of reference (2); the feasibility study information package and questionnaire (3); and the full set of steering group reports (4). A series of questions and answers on the ECTS extension was subsequently prepared by the full group of ECTS counsellors.
Main Findings
In the last ten years many European member States have introduced their own different national credit-based education innovations. Most have also reformed their education and training systems to adjust them to the realities of the global dimension of the education sector. These developments are clearly linked to the creation of a common European higher education area envisaged by the Sorbonne and Bologna declarations. The Bologna Declaration specifically mentions the establishment of ‘a system of credits – such as in the ECTS system’. It suggests ‘Credits could also be acquired in non-higher education contexts, including lifelong learning, providing they are recognised by receiving Universities concerned.’ The work of the Steering Group confirms that this aspiration is feasible. The application of a credits-based approach to lifelong learning will aid the harmonisation of the architecture of education systems in Europe.
Overall, a broadly favourable consensus of opinion emerged from the research. All of the national reports are positive about proceeding with the initiative, whilst at the same time, raising significant issues that have to be overcome in this highly complex area.
Several countries are developing systems to promote lifelong learning but they are all in the early stages. All countries, whatever their stage of development, suffer from similar problems associated with the need to improve the skills and knowledge of their citizens in the context of a highly competitive global economy. The creation of an effective pan-European credit-based framework for lifelong learning would benefit all European citizens. Furthermore, where systems do not currently exist, an ECTS-based framework would act as a template and spur for development.
Some European countries already have sophisticated national credit systems covering different types of education, whilst for others, ECTS is their only experience of credits. National credit systems have clearly been created to achieve quite different local, regional, national and international objectives. ECTS is compatible with all existing credit systems. ECTS is currently designed to act as a framework to facilitate credit transfer. Systems for credit transfer can be distinguished from those for credit accumulation. In the latter the students’ entire educational programme is expressed in terms of credits. ECTS can easily be applied as an accumulation system but this will require appropriate support and guidance.
It should be noted that various negative opinions were raised. However, these emphasise the structural difficulties and long-term practical problems that need to be overcome. One serious negative concern is based on a misconception. This is the opinion that the introduction of credit accumulation creates an ‘à la carte’ framework in which the student has complete freedom to mix credits/units (different types and levels of education) at will, and then demand a recognised qualification. It must be emphasised that this is not possible, nor envisaged. It is for each relevant national structure to determine how educational programmes are validated and constructed, for universities to take the ultimate decision.
The current state of the ECTS is relatively healthy and buoyant. It is accepted and used by over 1000 higher education institutions. The tools it uses are tried and tested and have been shown to be effective. The principles on which it is based are sound. However, it does require further embedding within institutions. For the current purposes of credit transfer ECTS works well. In this context no changes to its procedures and processes are necessary. The principles that underpin ECTS (as a credit transfer system) will also serve to underpin a broader European credit (accumulation) system. However, a number of adaptations and developments to the existing ECTS tools and procedures would be necessary for its application to lifelong learning.
Conclusions and Recommendations
It is timely to go ahead with the development of credit-based pilot projects to facilitate lifelong learning. The majority of those consulted enthusiastically agreed with the development of ECTS to achieve this end. Those who had reservations were concerned with legitimate issues associated with quality, institutional autonomy, and the risk of mismatching units and programmes (‘à la carte’ credit systems).
A new European credit system would increase the transparency of national systems, encourage flexibility in the development of personalised study courses and of joint curricula and facilitate agreements for the mobility of learners, not only between educational sectors in the same country, but also between those of different countries. Credit systems are powerful enabling devices, which aid mobility between various forms of education and training. The application of ECTS to different systems and types of education will facilitate the recognition of learning gained both nationally and internationally.
The development and introduction of an ECTS credit-based lifelong learning framework will be a complex process, best achieved at the strategic policy level through processes enabling a wide dialogue between European higher education institutions, initial education providers, professional bodies and employers. At the tactical level there is a strong argument for short, well-focussed follow-up projects, involving these bodies.
It is difficult to envisage a European system that did not require some convergence at national/institutional level. Like ECTS, a more comprehensive European credit-based system for lifelong learning should be developed on a voluntary basis, first in pilot projects and then with the participation of all interested countries and institutions. The experience with ECTS has shown that countries and institutions may at first resist change but then will slowly adjust to a system that facilitates mutual benefit, understanding and mobility. The Bologna Declaration is an indication of the political support offered by European governments to such a process.