Facing the standards and quality requirements of European higher education

By  Sven Åke Bjørke    April 2014

The traditional “anarchist” professor tends to resist standardisation systems like for instance The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS)

Higher education in Europe 500 years ago was amazingly enough quite homogeneous. A scholar or a student could walk from one university to the next and discuss and study the same topics in the same common academic language: Latin. If you studied at the University of Copenhagen, Cambridge, Krakow or Sorbonne didn’t really matter. Later wars and religious conflicts tore Europe more or less apart. The common Latin language disappeared, and the universities increasingly became a part of the national interests of the various governments.

The European Union (EU) now has ambitions to recreate some of these common ways of doing things from the old days, and actively works for an educational system which can be recognized by all universities, giving opportunities for joint study programmes, increased student and scholar mobility and credit accumulation at any university taking part in the system.

At its inception, the Bologna Process was meant to strengthen the competitiveness and attractiveness of the European higher education and to foster student mobility and employability through the introduction of a system based on undergraduate and postgraduate studies with easily readable programmes and degrees. Quality assurance has played an important role from the outset, too. (Bologna process, 2010)

Most EU countries have committed themselves to the Bologna process which involves increasing transparency, comparability, interchange ability, lifelong learning and mobility of education and students in the EU (Bologna process, 2009). Some higher educational institutions outside the EU area plan to adapt their own systems in order to make their study programmes compatible with the institutions in the EU. A main standardisation tool is the European Credit Accumulation and Transfer System (ECTS). “The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) is a tool that helps to design, describe, and deliver study programmes and award higher education qualifications” (Education and culture DG 2014).

Problems and resistance mainly go according to the following:

1.  The ECTS requires 36-44 weeks of study per year, with one semester being 18-22 weeks. Many universities traditionally have only 12-15 weeks’ semesters.

2. One semester should require an estimated 900 hours of work for an average European student. The ‘estimated student workload hour unit’, a ‘notional student hour’ or whatever you may wish to call it, is not an exact unit, but nevertheless a crucial concept in the ECTS. 25-30 student work hours correspond to 1 credit in the ECTS. In order to calculate credits, focus is on student work, not on the traditional delivery of lectures or the number of literature pages to be studied.

ECTS credits are based on the workload students need in order to achieve expected learning outcomes. Learning outcomes describe what a learner is expected to know, understand and be able to do after successful completion of a process of learning. Workload indicates the time students typically need to complete all learning activities (such as lectures seminars, projects, practical work, self-study and examinations) required to achieve the expected learning outcomes (Education and culture DG, 2009)

This means that the course development tends to become modularised and learner-centred rather than teacher-centred. Courses can give 5; 7.5; 10; 15 or 30 ECTS credits, with 30 credits corresponding to a full time semester course, while 7.5 credits corresponds to 225 student work hours or a quarter of a semester.

Planning e.g. four 7.5 ECTS courses totalling 900 student work hours, means that course development must be coordinated. If one course writer clearly underestimates the number of hours required for the tasks and activities, this course will expand at the expense of the other courses. If the 7.5 ECTS course actually needs 300 hours to complete (in reality a 10 ECTS course), it “steals” 75 student hours from the other courses.
Most professors tend to consider their own course as the most important course. If all professors overload their courses, the student workload will exceed the standard 900 hours, and may become unmanageable.

Most universities will make an internal decision on the number of workload hours they will put into a credit point. Most institutions calculate with 25-27 hours. Some go even higher. Very few operate with a full 30 hours per credit point.

3. At times the semester has been shortened. Instead of having 20 weeks, the real number may be 15 or 16. If the courses have been planned to add up to a total of 900 hours, the student workload per week may tend to become rather high.

4. The ECTS requires careful planning, structuring and coordination. This adds to the professor’s workload. Besides, s/ he can no longer be the spontaneous lecturer that enters an auditorium, rattles off his or her lecture on a favourite subject, and leaves. Planning learning tasks and activities, and maybe a lecture if it fits in, half a year in advance, is contrary to the traditional way of working. All new courses are required to have a detailed course description with defined learning outcomes and workload details. Detailed course descriptions and study guides might be perceived as contrary to academic liberty and as too much support to grownup students.

Course descriptions contain ‘learning outcomes’ (i.e. what students are expected to know, understand and be able to do) and workload (i.e. the time students typically need to achieve these outcomes). Each learning outcome is expressed in terms of credits, with a student workload ranging from 1 500 to 1 800 hours for an academic year, and one credit generally corresponds to 25-30 hours of work (Education and culture DG 2014).

5. The ordinary professor has no training in learner-centred and “flipped classroom” approaches. Traditionally the professor making a course asks himself the question: “What shall I say to the students this semester?” Then the answer is implemented in “a cover-and-test” approach, often as a transmission of information from the active lecturer to the rather passive audience of students.

With a learner-centred approach, the same professor must ask different questions: “What are the students supposed to learn?” or “What should the learning outcomes be?”  or “How are they going to learn it in the most efficient way?” and “How do I calculate the number of hours the average student will need to complete the task?” and “Is the workload correctly calculated?”.

6. Web 2.0. and disruptions.  Can technology disrupt traditional education (Magid 2013)? A challenge to most colleges and universities is that most professors lack basic training in the pedagogical use of ICT supported education, Web 2.0 and social media (Bosco, 2010). This can be problematic, if the students expect their professors to be up to date in this respect. The EU commission seems to have clear expectations to more ICT in education (EC 2014).


Quality assurance

Have you ever reflected on how to measure quality of a university course? How is it done? How can one university claim that the quality of what they deliver is higher than that of another university?

Traditionally, a university claims to have a higher quality than others by pointing to the number of Nobel laureates in their staff, the number of staff with a PhD, the number of fully qualified professors etc.

Most universities have quality assurance systems that require course and study programme writers to define aims of the course, a literature list with X number of pages to read and Y number of auditorium lectures.  The course outline has to be controlled and approved by a committee appointed by the faculty or in some cases the university.

As a rule, there is little or no quality control of the actual lectures held. The committee does not go to the auditorium, mingle with the students and assess the lecture given, even if the lecture is often regarded as the most important medium for transmission of the knowledge at hand.

Most universities have existed in their own right, making their own quality standards, and don’t worry about what other universities might do. This state of the world is approaching its end.

The European standard system is probably the biggest and most all-encompassing standardisation system in existence. Higher educational institutions worldwide that wish to internationalise their courses, probably shall have to consider whether they want to make their quality assurance system compatible with the Bologna process. It might be a good idea to be able to compete for good students on the big EU market.


Bologna process (2010) History, http://www.ehea.info/article-details.aspx?ArticleId=3

Bologna process (2009) Booklet on Bologna Process and EHEA,  http://www.ehea.info/Uploads/Documents/Bologna_leaflet_web.pdf

Bosco, J. et al (2010) Web 2.0 as a Force for School Transformation: a Tale of Six Districts, in Compendium 2010,  http://www.capss.org/uploaded/Hard_Copy_Documents/Technology/CoSN-2010_CMPND-Vol8_Isu2_v7.pdf

EU (2014) Quality framework in higher education

European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA)

Education and culture DG (2009) ECTS user’s guide, Education and training DG http://ec.europa.eu/education/tools/docs/ects-guide_en.pdf

Education and culture DG (2014) European Credit and Accumulation System, Education and training DG  http://ec.europa.eu/education/tools/ects_en.htm

European Commission (EC) (2014) Horizon 2020,  http://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/what-horizon-2020

Magid, L. (2013) Can Technology Disrupt Education?, Forbes,  http://www.forbes.com/sites/larrymagid/2013/02/26/can-technology-disrupt-education/






About svenaake

University Teacher.
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