Analytic Quality Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-21, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 18 June, 2021 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2021.


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European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS)

core definition

ECTS is a system for recognising credit for learning and facilitating the movement of the recognised credits between institutions and across national borders.

explanatory context

ECTS was introduced in 1989 as part of the Erasmus framework and is the only credit system used across Europe. Initially, it was just a credit transfer system (hence the acronym ECTS rather than ECT&AS). As part of the Bologna Process it aims to assists student mobility. ECTS developed into a credit accumulation system to be implemented at institutional, regional, national and European level. It is part of the process of developing a system of credits for the European Higher Education Area. 

The workload (the average time a learner might be expected to reach the required learning outcomes) of a full-time student during one academic year is calculated to be 60 ECTS credits. ECTS credits can only be obtained after appropriate assessment of the learning outcomes the student has achieved.

analytical review

The Europe Unit (undated) states:

The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) aims to make study programmes in Europe easier to read and compare. It assigns credits to course components based on the student workload required to achieve the objectives of the particular course of study. These objectives are usually described in terms of the learning outcomes of the course and the competencies to be acquired.

According to the Europa, Education and Training site (Europa, 2004):

The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System is a student-centred system based on the student workload required to achieve the objectives of a programme, objectives preferably specified in terms of the learning outcomes and competences to be acquired.

The UNESCO definition explores the origin and motive for ECTS and its role in the Bologna process. It states that ECTS is:

A European Community project initially established under the ERASMUS Programme (1988–1995). It was developed more broadly between 1995–1999 under the higher education component of the SOCRATES Programme, ERASMUS, and proved to be an effective tool for creating curricular transparency and facilitating academic recognition. The activity of ECTS is twofold: on the one hand, it guarantees academic recognition to students of studies completed abroad and furthermore enables studies abroad; on the other hand, it provides higher education institutions with curricular transparency by offering detailed information regarding the respective curricula and their relevance in terms of an earned degree and by enabling higher education institutions to preserve their autonomy and responsibility for all decisions regarding student achievement. The Bologna Declaration takes ECTS as the common framework for curriculum design and student mobility within the envisaged European Higher Education Area. (Vlãsceanu, et al., 2004, pp. 31–32)

In its Glossary on the Berlin Communiqué, ENQA (2003) notes:

ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) is a credit system, which provides a way of measuring and comparing learning achievements, and transferring them from one institution to another. The system was initially established under the Erasmus programme (1989-1996) and has been tested over a period of 6 years in a pilot scheme involving 145 higher education institutions in all EU Member States and EEA countries. Since the introduction of the Institutional Contract in the SOCRATES/ERASMUS programme in 1997/98 all European universities can take part in ECTS. As an effective instrument for creating curricular transparency and facilitating academic recognition the ECTS system supports European-wide mobility. Transparency is created by providing detailed information on the curricula and their relevance towards a degree. The main tools used to make ECTS work and facilitate academic recognition are the information package, the learning agreement and the transcript of records. The possibility of using ECTS within the field of vocational training is discussed at the moment.


Stephen Adam (2004, pp. 25–26) pointed out, prio to the shift to an accumulation element, that ECTS is evolving rapidly

The European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) has recently developed rapidly as a credit accumulation and transfer scheme at national level. It has moved from being a credit transfer system for recognising periods of study at foreign institutions to become a putative credit accumulation and transfer system that encompasses all learning and is not solely focused on overseas mobility. Its evolution has been accelerated by the Bologna process and the drive to find effective tools to help converge the structures of European higher education.


The UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) (undated) defines European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System as:

A system used across Europe for the transfer and accumulation of academic credit (see credit accumulation and transfer schemes

Note: the latest official website (as of 3 January 2017) that explains ECTS in full is

associated issues

Notional learning time

Adam (2004, p. 7) argues that:

Inevitably, as ECTS moves from a limited credit transfer, to a full credit accumulation and transfer, instrument that links VET and HE in a framework for lifelong learning within the over-arching European Qualifications framework, it is moving towards a definition in terms of ‘notional learning time to achieve specified learning outcomes’. Credits are a powerful way to quantify learning achievement in different contexts (VET, lifelong learning as well as higher education). However, ECTS credits are not currently linked to levels and consequently they suffer from being rather crude instruments as they cannot delineate progression or indicate anything about the nature of learning. It is only when credits are linked to level and learning outcomes (learning outcomes are used to define credits) do they reach their full potential.

related areas

See also


credit accumulation

credit transfer


Adam, S., 2004, Using Learning Outcomes: A consideration of the nature, role, application and implications for European education of employing ‘learning outcomes’ at the local, national and international levels. United Kingdom Bologna Seminar 1–2 July 2004, Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh Conference Centre) Edinburgh. Scotland.

Europa, 2004, Education and Training: ECTS — European Credit Transfer System, Last update: 23 August, 2004, no longer at this address, 3 March 2011.

Europe Unit [UK] undated, ECTS, available at, accessed 3 March 2011, not available 13 July 2012.

European Commission, 2012, European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), available at , updated 26 March 2012, accessed 21 September 2012, page not available 3 December 2017.

European Network of Quality Agencies (ENQA), 2003, The Bologna Process, Glossary, accessed 21 September 2012, page not available 3 December 2017.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), undated, Glossary, available at, accessed 7 January 2017, not available 20 June 2019.

Vlãsceanu, L., Grünberg, L., and Pârlea, D., 2004, Quality Assurance and Accreditation: A Glossary of Basic Terms and Definitions (Bucharest, UNESCO-CEPES) Papers on Higher Education, ISBN 92-9069-178-6.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2021

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