The issue of credit accumulation and transfer systems

and the Bologna Declaration

Pedro Lourtie

1. Introduction

The Leiria International Seminar on Credit Accumulation and Transfer Systems is one of the international seminars agreed in Helsinki, during the Finnish Presidency of the European Union, included in the program of the first two years of the Bologna Declaration process, from Bologna, in 1999, to Prague, in 2001.

The Bologna Declaration process is under way, but it will have to ensure that all parties concerned are involved and that they participate actively. The institutions of higher education are an essential part of the process, as the Ministers of Education recognise in the declaration itself, as it states "We expect Universities again to respond promptly and positively and to contribute actively to the success of our endeavour". Therefore, an effort has to be made to ensure that information reaches all parties concerned.

The agreed international seminars, three in total, and the Convention of the Institutions of Higher Education should not be the only fora to discuss the Declaration. National, regional and local seminars are also important to raise awareness and collect contributions to the development of the process.

In fact this is a process with numerous actors, the governments, the institutions of higher education and, within these, students and staff. Governments may pass laws, but for the process to really work, given the autonomy of the institutions of higher education, they have to be an active part of the endeavour.

Nevertheless, the international seminars play an important role in finding workable alternatives and building consensus around some of the topics of the Declaration, across the European area of higher education. This is the objective of this seminar, to discuss workable alternatives and to help in building a consensus about Credit Accumulation and Transfer Systems, that will lead to a European Credit System widely applied.


2. The goals of the Bologna Declaration

The Declaration sets out six objectives that are instrumental "to establish the European area of higher education and to promote the European system of higher education world-wide". One of those objectives is the establishment of a system of credits, the object of this seminar.

The six objectives referred above are means to reach the main goals. The creation of the European area of higher education is presented as "a key to promote citizen's mobility and employability and the Continent's overall development" and "to promote the European system of higher education world-wide", also formulated in another point of the Declaration as "increasing competitiveness of the European system of higher education".

In this light, we should not restrict ourselves to the six instrumental objectives, but to look at them, and beyond them, having in mind the main goals of international competitiveness, mobility and employability. The main goals are, in fact, correlated, as the factors impacting on each of them are, at least to a large extent, common, as the instrumental objectives serve the main goals.

For this reason, it may be useful to reflect, although briefly, on what could or should be done to pursue or achieve the main goals. This is the object of the next sections.


3. International competitiveness and employability

In discussing international competitiveness of the European higher education system, understood as its "world-wide attraction", we do not forget that we are also competing among ourselves. Competing among the signatory countries and among institutions of higher education. This is not, however, contradictory to the goal of competitiveness of the European area of higher education, on the contrary, as the competitiveness of the European area of higher education will enhance the worl-dwide competitiveness of each individual country or institution.

The competitiveness of the European higher education system may be analysed from, at least, two perspectives, although intertwined: the competitiveness of the European degrees and diplomas in the international scene, as a professional qualification, and the capacity to attract students, teachers and research staff from outside the European area of higher education.

To promote wide acceptance of European degrees and diplomas and, therefore, employability of the graduates, within and outside Europe, one may consider:

The above factors are also relevant to attract students, as well as teachers and research staff, from both within and outside the European area. But, after being attracted by the type of work or study programme, the decision to move also depends on the conditions for mobility that is the object of nest section.

In dealing with competitiveness we must also take into account the transnational offer of higher education. This offer is far from being homogeneous as, along with good quality programmes, there are low quality programmes or even frauds. It is, however, a growing reality that responds to the needs of many, world-wide, that otherwise would not have access to higher education. As it expands, the degree systems used by the transnational offer will become more familiar to the people all over the world.

The solution is not to ignore it, hoping that it will disappear, but to face it and, to compete with it in its own ground. That is, to offer European programmes outside the European area, including the possibility of partnerships of institutions from several signatory countries, but, at the same time, setting a standard by submitting these programmes to recognised evaluation systems and making it known.


4. Mobility of students, teachers, researchers and administrative staff

Mobility is a recurrent topic in the internationalisation of higher education. The importance of mobility is widely recognised, Community programmes support mobility and the Bologna Declaration calls for the "promotion of mobility by overcoming the obstacles to the effective exercise of free movement". The fact is that there is the political will to promote mobility, but there are still obstacles to its effective exercise.

By the term mobility we may be referring to a number of different situations. In academic terms, mobility may mean the possibility of having the individual's previous education recognised to the effect of obtaining a degree, in some institution of higher education, or to be accepted in a post-graduate programme or even to change from an area of study to another. In professional terms, it may mean the possibility of having the professional qualifications recognised in other countries. In physical terms, it means the opportunity and the conditions to effectively move to another country to study or to work.

Mobility may be short-term, be it organised or spontaneous, for instance when a student moves to an institution of higher education in another country to do part of the studies, without loosing the links with the institution of origin, and coming back after these studies, or when a teacher has a sabbatical year abroad. Or it may be without term or unlimited, whenever a student or a teacher move to a different institution, without having any plans to come back.

To promote mobility, some factors may be considered, although they may not be all relevant to all situations:

Several of the objectives of the Bologna Declaration are relevant to both these items, but specifically the establishment of a system of credits. However, for recognition to really work, there is no substitute for a flexible attitude of the institutions of higher education.

The factors referred above are a sample of what a more systematic approach to the motivations of the candidates and the target groups we wish to attract could reveal. In fact, if the objective is to be competitive world-wide, the motivation of the potential candidates to choose a given institution has to be understood and met, without sacrificing the quality of the programmes or being rigorous in what concerns recognition of qualifications or acquired knowledge and competencies.


5. Degrees and credits

The Bologna Declaration calls for the "adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees". A common system of degrees would certainly be comparable and could be made readable, but it does not seem a workable proposition, for a number of reasons.

This means that if it is not viable to approach the question by the aggregates, the degrees or diplomas, the alternative is to start from the elementary units, a credit system we all can agree upon. A credit system not only for direct exchanges, as ECTS was conceived for, but a sort of "currency", allowing for accumulation. This is the challenge and this seminar is about facing it.

The success of a European credit system is strongly dependent on the effort that will be put on building a consensus around such a system and the prerequisites for its implementation. The discussion of the makings of a European credit system is left to other keynote speakers and the discussions.

A prerequisite is to build trust among institutions of higher education about the quality of the studies and way credits are applied. If institutions do not trust each other, it can hardly be expected that they will recognise each otherís credits, although they may be using the same credit system.

Quality evaluation and the recognition of the validity of a quality evaluation system are important to this aim. But trust can also be reinforced through co-operation in research, joint projects or joint programmes, as better mutual knowledge will be developed.

For a credit system to work and credits from one institution to be used in another one, the requirements for a degree to be awarded must be clear, identifying core requirements of attainment in terms of knowledge and competencies, but, at the same time, to have some flexibility. This questions the way the requirements to award a degree are defined and asks for a joint reflection on this subject, along with the definition of a credit system.

To reach a European credit system that will be accepted and applied by most institutions of higher education is an achievement in itself and has an impact on mobility, but is also a contribution for the readability and comparability of the degrees, specially if taken together with a common framework for the definition of degree requirements.

The declaration also refers to credits "acquired in non higher education contexts, including lifelong learning". To include in the credit system this possibility and obtain a consensus represents an additional challenge, but an important one in terms of attracting new publics to the European higher education systems and increasing the education opportunities of the European citizens.


6. Beyond a European credit system

With the present seminar we aim at setting the basis for the work to follow, towards a European credit system. However, it would be interesting to test how far we can go beyond a credit system. We exclude a common degree structure as an administrative measure, although a generalised credit system and the intensifying of co-operation among institutions and systems of higher education may induce some degree of convergence.

The declaration sets broad objectives in terms of the structure of the degree system, essentially based on two main cycles, of the minimum duration of the first cycle, as three years, and of the second cycle leading to the master and/or doctorate degree. We must recognise that this objective has been cleverly formulated. It does not demand that changes are introduced, as most of the systems already satisfy those minimums but, nevertheless, sets a standard.

The standard may not be adequate to all areas of knowledge. It is certainly not adequate a training of three years for a medical doctor. Therefore, it has to be either a first cycle degree, but longer, or a second cycle degree, after of a first cycle of at least three years, that, according to the declaration, should be relevant for the European labour market as an appropriate level of qualification.

This means that this objective, that seems to be the one that points more concretely to convergence, may induce divergence in areas of knowledge to which the standard is inadequate. An alternative, to avoid inducing divergence, could be to identify common levels of reference by area of knowledge, which could be expressed in terms of credits.

Would it be possible to build a consensus around European levels of reference by area of knowledge? Is there a pattern for these levels of reference covering all national systems, which may be taken as basis for European levels of reference?

We propose that, after listening to the keynote speeches and discussing the credit accumulation and transfer systems in the workshops and in the plenary, to discuss the possibility, pros and cons of establishing European levels of reference, as a contribution to future work and to the preparation of the questions and points of view that will be presented to the Ministers of Education when they meet in Prague next May.

Leiria, 24 November 2000.