What is a Credit Point?

Have you ever thought about what kind of system you are studying in? Certainly it is based on meaningful standards, isn’t it? But that something is meaningless does not prevent administrations from requiring it of you.

What is a Credit Point? A virtual currency to measure your study progress? An instrument to standardize higher education courses and study programs? A means to discipline students and teachers?

Credit Points were introduced in many European countries as part of the Bologna Process. According to the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, a Credit Point reflects a certain amount of hours spent studying. An academic year then usually is defined as comprising 60 Credit Points, each of which requires 25-30 hours of work. Thus, while the European Commission (so far) failed to standardize the length of cucumbers and condoms across the Union, they were pretty much successful in standardizing the length of higher education. A three-year bachelor program now amounts to 180 Credit Points or 4500-5400 hours of work.

Transparency, compatibility, outcome-based quality assurance

As in other cases of top-down administration, we may assume that that which the head of the administration intends is not necessarily that which happens in practice. What did they intend? For example:

The use of ECTS, in conjunction with outcomes-based qualifications frameworks, makes study programmes and qualifications more transparent and facilitates the recognition of qualifications. (ECTS Page)

Transparency, compatibility, outcome-based quality assurance are the buzzwords of the reform. That any person with expertise in education will tell you that individual talents and constraints rule out the possibility to standardize a study program like that does not count as a caveat. Even though that which is compared is rather arbitrary, one could say meaningless, it has been solved legally and administratively that we can still compare it – simply because we must.

I did not need Credit Points

I studied without ever getting a Credit Point – and when it happened, it only happened coincidentally (i.e. in my minor computer science that was one of the first to introduce Credit Points); I saw professors and lower administrators struggling to adapt their programs to the new system; and I am now myself a professor working in that system where Credit Points are the universal currency in measuring study progress.

Frankly, I tell you that I hate Credit Points. Not so much because they are administrative nonsense (for the reasons mentioned above). No, I got used to that a long time ago. I hate Credit Points because so many times that I invited students to join an activity to deepen or broaden their knowledge and insight, I heard the question: “But do we get Credit Points?”

Chocolate milk is better than Credit Points

Fortunately, some still say “Yes.” And fortunately some students have not lost their sense of humor altogether – in spite of Credit Points. Because when I once told two students engaging in an extra activity that while I cannot give them extra Credit Points, I would love to buy them a hot beverage, they just replied: “Oh, no problem, hot chocolate milk is much better than Credit Points!” And right they were. (I will not tell you which brand it was; let’s just say it is very famous in the Netherlands.)

Recently, I taught some master students the basics of the academic incentive system, that is, the system of rewarding and punishing academics, the system that influences our behavior. I remember that when I wrote a post about this for my German blog a couple of years ago (Die Größe der Wissenschaft), almost nobody was interested in it. Indeed, it is one of the least-read posts that I have ever published. Even my boss at that time was not interested in it – he just knew that he needed very much of the virtual currency, in this case Impact Points which are something similar to Credit Points, and hardly cared about their meaning.

What does a Credit Point look like?

In this session that I had with my students, I started out with the question what a Credit Point actually looks like. Is it red, blue, green, black? The students were confused, unsurprisingly. Perhaps some of them pondered whether their professor had gone crazy eventually. However, I guess that they were even more pondering this when I told them that I had brought them a couple of Credit Coins, my suggestion of what a Credit Point could look like if it existed as a physical thing.


What a Credit Coin might look like. Laboramus ergo sumus!

Like real coins, they were round (thus taking a while to cut them out properly); and they had two sides. One side just stated that it was precisely what I said that it was: a Credit Coin. Additionally, it had a Latin sentence printed on it: laboramus ergo sumus – we work, therefore we are! The other side contained a variant of my university’s emblem, a couple of butterflies (the symbol of transformation), and a book. For those who were so busy collecting Credit Points so far: A book is a thing with printed text that you can read. (And no, it is usually not advertisements.)


Back side of the Credit Coin: Enjoy Credit Points!

Let’s define: We are the best!

Why did I choose a book? Well, in the original emblem, the book is the bible and the Latin text: verbum dni lucerna which is short for verbum domini lucerna pedibus nostris which in turn is Latin for: “The word of the Lord is a light for our feet.” This may be somewhat surprising for a modern university, but not surprising at all when you know that we are currently celebrating our 400th anniversary and that the university originally consisted of a theological faculty and educated clergy.

Since the idea that the bible might provide knowledge is too old-fashioned for the idea of Credit Coins, I replaced that Latin sentence with the imperative: “Enjoy Credit Points!” Don’t think about their meaning, don’t think about what they are doing to you, no, just enjoy them; and once you have enjoyed them enough, please visit the page of my university explaining that we are now the top 100 or even better university in so many areas – without even slightly explaining what these rankings measure and, even more importantly, what they don’t measure, namely, educational or scientific quality. (As this post is already pretty long, please see this paper by John Ioannidis and colleagues to learn why.)

No, please, never try to understand anything – not even that you are already part of that system. Just enjoy being the best – by definition!

Further Reading

Thanks for the inspiration by Ai Weiwei who made his own stamps, currently shown at his exhibition Evidence in Berlin, and Renzo Martens for the documentary Enjoy Poverty.

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