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Students' life

Five physics credits: how does the ECTS credit system work in european universities?

In Europe, grades do not play a key role unless the student is seeking a scholarship. However, in order to advance to the next course, it is not enough to pass all the necessary examinations – you also need to earn the required number of points – credits. What are credits, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of this grading system?

Universities in Europe operate under the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). Credit is the term used to assess a student’s knowledge. 

The credit system of grades was introduced in the framework of the Bologna Declaration to facilitate communication between universities of different countries, increase student mobility and unify the higher education system. Read more about it here. 

Let’s use an example of student Maya and explain, what does an “academic credit” mean.  

Our Maya was accepted to the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University, Journalism departure. 

According to the official information on the university website, Maya needs to earn 180 credits in three years of study to be allowed to take her state exams and defend her thesis. 

The subjects studied are divided into three categories:

  • Compulsory (“povinné předměty”). The total number of ECTS credits for these subjects is 126. You have to take them in certain semesters. Postponement of these subjects and retake of exams is the most problematic.  
  • Compulsory and elective (“povinně volitelné předměty”). These subjects are usually grouped in several subject blocks, and the student has to choose several subjects from each block. At the same time, he must achieve a minimum number of credits in each block and a certain number of credits in total. The total number of credits for “povinně volitelné předměty” for future journalists is 30. For example, the minimum number of credits in the block “Creative laboratories: print and photo” (“Tvůrčí dílny – tisk a foto”) is four. Each subject in this block is evaluated by two credits. It means that the student has to take at least two courses from the block. 
  • Elective courses (volitelné předměty). Prospective journalists need to take at least one course in two credits from this group.

What are the advantages of the European credit system?

  • Since the ECTS system applies to universities in all countries that have signed the Bologna Declaration, it significantly increases the mobility of students.

Let’s go back to our journalism student Maya. Maya decides to spend the second semester of her second year in Barcelona, as she has always liked Spain. She remembers that she lacks another 20 credits to transfer to the third year, so at the Spanish university she chooses subjects on her specialty and in such a way as to gain the missing points. Upon returning home Maya brings the dean’s office of the department confirmation: she took all the courses and passed the credits and exams. The points – credits – are counted for her at the university in Prague, and Maya quietly passes to the third year.

  • The credit system allows responsible students to set their own schedules. 

Let’s say our Maya knows that she needs to earn 60 credits in her first year. But at the same time for the summer semester she was offered a good part-time job in her specialty – an internship at the Czech TV station – and there is no way she can refuse it. Starting in February, there won’t be much time left for studying, Maya realizes. So it makes sense to push harder: for the winter semester, she writes herself eight or ten subjects at once. For these – she counted – would get 45 credits. So she only has 15 credits left to earn in the summer semester. If you consider that the subject “weighs” 5 credits, that’s three courses. Such a study load you can already try to combine with work.

  • The ECTS system allows you to choose the subjects that really interest you.

Of course, you will have to “survive” the block of compulsory subjects, but within the other two blocks you can find many interesting disciplines with a practical bias, including those from other faculties. Journalist Maya, as we remember, is passionate about Spain. So before spending a semester in Barcelona, she enrolls in a Spanish course at the Faculty of Philosophy.

  • The ECTS grading system makes it easier to transfer to another department or to another university. 

Again, we think of Maya. She did two courses in Prague, went to Spain, and suddenly realized she was interested in a narrow field – reporting from fashion shows. She wanted to interview designers and fashion photographers. Fashion is known to be the cradle of Paris. Maya learned French and is proficient in it. “So maybe I should change my university and go study in the French capital?” – she ponders. 

In Paris, she may have to start all over again: entrance exams, first year, and so on. However, if Maya chooses a university and a department with the most related specialty, then theoretically she can get some credit for the courses she took in the Czech Republic and Spain. And, perhaps, she will start her studies not from the first, but at least from the second year.

What are the disadvantages of the credit system in Europe?

  • When there is an opportunity to choose, it is easy to overestimate your strength and during the session to curse your courage at the beginning of the semester.

When scheduling and recording courses, you should think not only about getting more credits, but also find out what is required to get “credit” for a particular discipline. In the case of required courses you do not have to choose. But let’s say you found a couple of subjects in the list of “povinně volitelné předměty”. Both “weigh” two credits and interest you about the same. However, for “credit” in the first discipline you need to pass two midterm tests and one final test, write three essays and make a presentation. “Credit” in the second course will cost you “little blood” – one test and one essay. The choice in this case is obvious. 

  • The European system of transfer and credit accumulation doesn’t  give a complete picture of a student’s knowledge. 

Only a list of courses taken will appear in the Diploma Supplement. However, it is not clear how well the student has passed midterm tests, made presentations, worked in a team with fellow students on common projects, etc.

  • The ability to choose courses assumes that the student has a clear idea of “what he or she wants to be when he or she grows up”.

Let’s go back to Maya the journalist. She:

  1. Understands what the profession of journalist is and is confident that she wants to build a career in this field. 
  2. She knows – at least approximately – what skills and abilities she needs to have in order to become a good journalist.  
  3. She knows that the more foreign languages she has as an “asset,” the wider her horizons will be. That’s why she goes to Barcelona for a semester and enrolls in a Spanish course at the University of Prague. And later, as we remember, she will also need French. 
  4. She realizes that what interests her in journalism is the genre of reporting, so she chooses those subjects that are directly or indirectly related to it, if possible.

And so on. But it also happens that the student at the time of admission:  

  1. Is guided mostly by the opinion of his parents.
  2. Dreams of a particular profession, but does not quite understand what awaits him in practice.
  3. In general, not sure what he wants to do in life. And he ended up at X university simply because he applied to several European schools, but was accepted only here.

With such a vague picture of the world in the first semester can come disappointment: “This is definitely not mine cup of coffee, I do not want, I will not study that. Where did I end up?” Freedom of choice in the form of a credit system will only make the situation worse. 

Summary: The ECTS credit system has its pros and cons. How it will affect the life and destiny of the student depends on his life position, tasks and needs.

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Alexandra Baranova 21 October 2021