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3 ECTS programme design

Programme context
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The programme context

When a new programme is developed, the first decision typically concerns the level of the qualification to be awarded, which is defined on the basis of the relevant national legislation and existing qualifications frameworks (European, national, sectoral, institutional).

It will be evident that not all learning outcomes are at the same level – hence the full implementation of a credit system requires level descriptors.

Nota Bene

European Qualifications Frameworks

There are two European Qualifications Frameworks: the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area (QF-EHEA) and the European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning of the EU (EQF-LLL). Both frameworks use learning outcomes to describe qualifications (e.g. Bachelor, Master, Doctor) and are compatible with each other as far as Higher Education is concerned (QF-EHEA cycles 1, 2 and 3 correspond to EQF-LLL levels 6, 7 and 8) and cover qualifications at ISCED levels 6, 7, 8.

In the QF-EHEA, three main cycles, as well as a short cycle, are identified and described by the so-called Dublin Descriptors, in terms of: applying knowledge and understanding, making judgments, communication skills, and learning to learn. The short, first and second cycles are also characterised by credit ranges:

  • Short cycle qualifications typically include approximately 120 ECTS credits.
  • First cycle qualifications typically include 180 or 240 ECTS credits.
  • Second cycle qualifications typically include 90 or 120 ECTS credits, with a minimum of 60 ECTS credits at the level of the second cycle.
  • The use of ECTS in the third cycle varies.

The EQF-LLL describes ‘levels of qualification’ (without indicating any credit ranges) – to provide a common reference framework which assists in comparing the national qualifications systems, frameworks and their levels. It is based on eight levels.

  • As an instrument for the promotion of lifelong learning, the EQF encompasses general and adult education, vocational education and training as well as higher education.
  • The eight levels cover the entire span of qualifications from those achieved at the end of compulsory education to those awarded at the highest level of academic and professional or vocational education and training.
  • Each level should in principle be attainable by way of a variety of education and career paths.
  • Learning outcomes are specified in three categories – as knowledge, skills and competence. This signals that qualifications– in different combinations – capture a broad scope of learning outcomes, including theoretical knowledge, practical and technical skills, and social competences where the ability to work with others will be crucial.

The different cycles of QF-EHEA are referenced to the levels of EQF-LLL as follows:

  • Short-cycle qualifications at level 5
  • First-cycle qualifications at level 6
  • Second-cycle qualifications at level 7
  • Third-cycle qualifications at level 8

National education systems may include levels other than those included in the overarching frameworks as long as national frameworks are self-certified and referenced against the QF-EHEA and the EQF. For example, while the EQF comprises 8 levels, the number of levels in national frameworks currently ranges from 7 to 12. Therefore, the fact that short cycle qualifications are included in the QF-EHEA does not oblige countries to include such qualifications in their national frameworks but it gives explicit recognition to the fact that many national frameworks do include short cycle qualifications.

The QF-EHEA and the EQF provide overarching frameworks against which national and institutional frameworks and descriptors should be calibrated.

National Frameworks are normally more detailed than these overarching frameworks, reflecting the range of tertiary qualifications offered in the country.

Higher Education Institutions which implement ECTS as a credit system will need an institutional framework which correlates with the national and international frameworks. The institutional framework will indicate how ECTS credits are to be used, normally specifying a minimum credit value for an educational component to facilitate inter/multi-disciplinary programmes (which will be created by combining educational components from across a range of disciplines). European and national frameworks indicate the level of the final qualification. Thus, institutions, recognising that not all credits acquired in progressing towards a qualification are at the same level (learning outcomes achieved in the third year of a Bachelor degree, for example, will tend to be more complex than those achieved in the first year) - may specify intermediate credit levels with appropriate descriptors which (together with progression rules) will help students in progressing along their learning pathways.

Before designing the programme in detail, it should be set in the context of institutional and departmental mission statements, professional specifications (regulations, requirements), and the institutional academic framework for credit allocation.

It is also recommended to carry out a needs analysis and to consult with stakeholders (employers, graduates, society at large) to ascertain the demand for the programme.