Wetenschap - 14 november 1996

It is easier to exchange students than courses

It is easier to exchange students than courses

About 500 students from West European countries come to Wageningen each year through the ERASMUS exchange programme organised by the European Union. The courses that they follow have proved less easy to exchange. There is a need for a new European grading system so that grades are accepted throughout the Community. Not only students but also study guides must be able to travel.


Imagine you get a 7 for an exam you take in the Netherlands. In Germany the same mark would be a 3, in France about 14 and somewhere else it could be a 3 or 6%. Throughout Western Europe there are about 10 different marking systems for university exams. Not only that, the weight given to a course also varies from country to country. This means that for students who have studied abroad, the subjects they have taken and the grades obtained must be translated into something which counts in the country where they will graduate. In the past this has led to problems. To even out the differences the EC has come up with the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) which is used under the ERASMUS programme. 145 academic establishments in Western Europe have now tried the system out for five courses of study.

Beginning next academic year (1997/98) the WAU plans to introduce the ECTS. It will not replace the grade system that WAU uses at the moment, but it should make it easier to give exchange students grades which mean something in their home countries. Under the ECTS a year of study is worth 60 credits. One credit from WAU is approximately equal to 1.43 European credits. These figures are translated into letters under the new system. A is the highest result, E the lowest. It would appear to be a simple question of sums. However, these grades give no indication of the level or content of a course, nor of whether the study fulfils criteria set by the home university.

Study guide

In the future a student who wants to follow an exchange programme will have to send a list of grades to the receiving university together with a study plan based on information from the host institute. According to Martha Bloemberg, MSc programme coordinator, the entire English language WAU study guide will have to be revised. It will not only contain a detailed description of each course, but it must also make clear how much previous knowledge is necessary in order to be able to take a particular course. One result of this rewriting is that the new guide will also appear on the Internet.

It is not before time: Wolfgang Madl from Austria originally wanted to go to Bristol or Newcastle in England. He didn't even consider the Netherlands as he speaks no Dutch. However, one of his lecturers had contacts in Wageningen and suggested it to him. The study guide which he used was out of date, and by the time he arrived in Wageningen he discovered that the courses he wanted to follow had either changed or weren't even offered any more.

Ivan Lemaire, from Angers in France, hadn't even seen a study guide before he arrived in Wageningen, but found the university's reputation sufficient reason to come. Lemaire is doing an MSc in agriculture at a private institute in France: The course there is very general, with a broad approach. Here in Wageningen I have more opportunity to specialise. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all the new material I am confronted with."

Madl finds there is sometimes too much overlap: Some subjects I'm now covering for the third time." He is taking courses here on water management, hydrology and irrigation. He came to Wageningen especially for the tropical focus, which is not available in Austria. It is not yet clear how much the courses he follows here will be worth when he returns: I haven't taken any exams yet, but I have an idea that I will get more credits here for a subject than I would at home."

Overlap

Pieter Schmidt from the Department of Forestry acknowledges that overlap and inconsistencies are bound to occur in exchange programmes of this sort. Most courses are organised in such a way that they form part of a whole programme. More advanced courses can only be taken by students who have already completed preparatory courses. The content and organisation of university education varies throughout Europe. Schmidt is coordinator of the European forestry network for the ERASMUS programme. Twenty seven universities offering training in forestry participate in the network. We all meet once a year which, as well as being good for networking, means that we have a good idea of the courses given by other institutes."

Most of Schmidt's experience of the ERASMUS programme is through Wageningen students who have gone to other universities to do research for their Master's degree. In these cases at least I have a thesis which is a tangible piece of work. A couple of times I have awarded a thesis a lower grade than was given by the host institute." In Schmidt's opinion this double grading must be able to continue under the new credit transfer system.

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