The ECTS framework helps students and universities define and understand the workload that comes with lectures and study programmes. It may deem daunting at first, but it’s actually quite easy to understand. Let’s explore the most common questions about ECTS:
The European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) is a points system used by universities and agreed by governments, that makes international education more easily comparable across borders.
The European Credit Transfer System - or, more precisely, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System - makes studying across the European Higher Education Area much more comparable. A system of credits means one course or module is worth the same at any university.
The system helps students study and live in different European nations during their studies. It also makes studying abroad much easier, as it means universities can compare the classes and courses they offer, so you get credit for your semester or year abroad.
Credits for lectures from different institutions can be accumulated (or added up) towards one degree or qualification, allowing for much more flexibility.
The ECTS system has been adopted by countries across the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). There are 48 nations signed up to the EHEA, from Portugal in the West to Russia and Kazakhstan in the East.
ECTS points, or ECTS credits, indicate the required workload to complete a study programme, or a module within a study programme. ECTS points only indicate workload; they do not indicate a grade.
Generally, each year of full-time study (or work, where applicable) is worth 60 ECTS credits. Usually this is divided by modules. So, for example, you might have 4 modules in a year with a similar workload, each of them worth 15 ECTS credits and thus adding up to 60 ECTS for the whole year.
ECTS points of modules are summed up to indicate the total workload for a study programme:
A year of full-time studies at university level is generally worth 60 ECTS credits, and defined as equal to 1,500 - 1,800 hours of study work. This means 1 ECTS is equal to between 25 to 30 hours (with the UK being one exception). The exact number of hours is different from country to country. A few examples:
Of course, these values are just a guide. They do not only include “contact hours” (i.e. hours you spend in classrooms), but also the time you prepare, do homework and so on - so your individual study times could be different.
If you study part-time, the number of ECTS per semester or year will also be lower, reflecting the reduced workload.
If you are only signing up for 20 ECTS worth of lectures in a given semester, you will probably have lots of free time, while more than 30 ECTS will mean you might not see much of your friends.
ECTS credit points indicate the workload associated with a study module, or number of modules. The great thing about ECTS credits is their versatility: They are used by and accepted by effectively all European universities - and also by many other institutions around the world.
There are three main uses of ECTS:
There are various reasons why you’d want to change universities. Perhaps your first university is not quite what you were looking for, or perhaps you want to switch to a subject not offered at your institution. The ECTS framework make this easy, because the credit points show institutions exactly how far someone has got in their studies. This way, you won’t have to start over completely.
This means students can more easily transfer between European universities. But it’s not limited to Europe - some other institutions do accept ECTS credits, because they are uniformed and easy to transfer. For example, 10 ECTS credits are usually equal to 5 US college credits. This way, students coming to Europe just for e.g. a summer school course can still use the credits at home.
This also means that if you plan to pursue further studies, you are not restricted to universities in the same country as the institution where you completed your Bachelor’s degree.
ECTS credits will help give admissions departments for Master’s or PhDs a good picture of what you have done previously, and if you are at the right level to do well in further studies. Moreover, admissions requirements are often explicitly stated with minimum ECTS credits, for example: “To apply to this Psychology programme, students need at least 20 ECTS credits in Statistics or Mathematics.”
And the same is true for students returning from a semester or year studying abroad. Your home university can easily confirm and accept the credit points of modules you completed during your exchange semester.
ECTS credits can be important when applying for Master’s or other postgraduate programmes.
There’s no hard and fast rule with admissions, but ECTS credits can certainly make everyone’s life a bit easier - especially if students apply for Master’s courses in different countries to where they completed their undergraduate degree.
Master’s admission requirements may include that students have a certain amount of ECTS credits in the subject area they want to apply for.
This is especially important when students are looking to study a course that isn’t directly what they focused on in their earlier studies. For example, if you want to study a Master’s in Engineering you may have to prove competency in Mathematics. Even if you did not study Engineering previously, the ECTS credits you gained in Mathematics-related modules during your Bachelor’s can help prove that your knowledge is sufficient for the Master’s programme you are applying to.
Applying for a PhD or Doctorate programme can be a little different from other postgraduate courses, but ECTS credits can still play an important role as Master’s and Bachelor's credits can give admissions staff a good idea of what students know, and how much they’ve studied the specific area they wish to delve further into.
Therefore, PhD application requirements may include that students have a certain amount of ECTS credit points in a certain subject area.
This is especially important when students are looking to study a PhD that’s a bit wider in scope than what they focused on during their earlier studies.
For example, students who want to work for a PhD in Engineering may have to prove competency in practical areas, even if their topic is theoretical. ECTS credits can help prove that students’ knowledge is up to scratch, wherever they studied previously.
The grading scheme is another important part of ECTS. As well as credits, which are awarded based on completed modules and courses, the system allows for grade conversion between universities, based on the students’ relative performance in their class.
Up until 2009, the framework included the ECTS grading scale that went from A to F, where A to E were passing grades. The table below shows which grade was awarded based on the performance percentile compared to the whole class:
|Grade (old system)||Pass?||% of students|
|FX||fail - some further work required|
|F||fail - considerable further work required|
The ECTS grading scale was relative; this meant that the same performance could theoretically result in different ECTS grades in different years or classes. Because most grading systems at universities in Europe follow a fixed scale, grades had to be converted at the end of a class or study programme. However, ECTS grades were never widely adopted and had some practical issues, which is why a new system was designed:
In 2009, the new ECTS grading table was introduced to replace the previous ECTS grading scale. This new approach still relies on relative performance measures, but allows for more flexibility and a better comparison of grades between institutions.
Here’s how it works: Universities track what percentage of students receive each passing grade. Ideally, this is done at the subject level (based on the ISCED-F field definition). So for example, a university would track: 9% of all History students receive the best grade, another 8% the second-best grade, and so on.
When you do an exchange semester, this information is shared between home and guest university. Then the guest university is able to give you their local grade, and also automatically convert it to the grade you would have received at home. Unfortunately, grading scales rarely match exactly: There may be multiple grade steps that are each considered equivalent, so there is some margin. The guest university decides if they award the best, average, or worst grade that is considered equivalent in the ECTS grading table.
This sounds complicated? Imagine the following example:
The following diagramme illustrates the conversion:
|Number of students:||100%||90%||80%||70%||60%||50%||40%||30%||20%||10%|
|Number of students:||100%||90%||80%||70%||60%||50%||40%||30%||20%||10%|
Most countries and universities use fixed grading scales. “Fixed” means: The same performance should always result in the same grade. The issue is that these scales are often very specific and do not directly match between two countries or two institutions.
With the ECTS grading table as a conversion tool, universities can assess a student’s performance relative to the class, and convert it to the equivalent grade in another institution’s grading scale. This is also relevant when you need to provide a transcript of records to another university.
Although the United Kingdom is part of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), universities tend to use UK credits. In theory, credits are defined separately for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland under the CATS scheme, and for Scotland with the SCQF framework, but they represent the same value.
Luckily, conversion between UK credit points and ECTS credit points is simple: 2 UK credits are equivalent to 1 ECTS credit.
If you have an undergraduate degree from the United States and plan to do a Masters in Europe, you may need to convert your U.S. credits to ECTS credits.
The typical “full course load” at an American university implies 15 U.S. credits per semester, which is equal to 30 ECTS credits at a European university. So the factor between American and European credits is usually 2, i.e. 1 U.S. credit point equals 2 ECTS credit points.
The ECTS credit system is used by universities in all 48 member countries of the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA.
The aim of the EHEA is to implement the Bologna Process and to join, states must ratify the European Cultural Convention treaty.
Some other universities outside the EHEA may accept ECTS credits on applications, but they usually will have to translate those credits and grades into their own structure - and will not automatically provide ECTS grades for graduates.14190 Programmes in Europe