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The FHEQ sets the general framework for degree programmes, and the QAA is clear that it ‘should be regarded as a framework, not a straitjacket’.[1] At the heart of the FHEQ is an attempt to ensure that qualifications awarded by HEIs maintain consistent standards, with a common expectation about student achievements. It is important to note that the ‘fundamental premise of the FHEQ is that qualifications should be awarded on the basis of achievement of outcomes and attainment rather than years of study’.[2] This underpins the approach to be taken in designing a curriculum and in preparing the associated documentation. There is a wealth of detail in the QAA documentation, so I will focus on a few key issues that need to be built into curriculum design.

First, it is worth noting that the FHEQ does not constitute a credit framework. Many UK universities do operate on a credit framework, but this is not mandatory under the QAA rules. However, QAA does provide guidance on academic credit arrangements.[3] If your institution does use a credit framework, your programme will need to recognise that in the way it is put together. The Burgess Group in 2004 called for the adoption of a common HE credit system in the UK in order to facilitate the transfer of students between institutions. Students could accumulate credits that would then be recognised in terms of the level of achievement when they wished to transfer between institutions, or wanted to take time out from study and re-enter at a later date. Under the recommended scheme (Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS)) a typical full-time year of study would equate to 120 ‘CATS’. For example, a programme might be based on 6 units per year, each taking the value of 20 CATS. Increasingly, many institutions – not to mention students and employers – are aware of the European context, and there has been a move towards trying to improve mobility of students around Europe, embodied in the so-called ‘Bologna Process’. Under this protocol, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) was developed to encourage mutual recognition of programmes of study and qualifications across Europe. The principle underlying this system is that the learning outcomes (and associated workload) of a typical full-time year of academic formal learning represent 60 ECTS. In other words, 1 ECTS is approximately equal to 2 CATS.

Unfortunately, life is rarely so simple. In the UK, 1 CATS has become associated with a total study time of 10 hours, whereas 1 ECTS is associated with between 25 and 30 hours of study. This has inhibited UK institutions from engaging fully with the Bologna Process, as workload in the UK is perceived to be too low to satisfy the demands of ECTS, even if it can be argued that the learning outcomes are achieved to an equivalent standard. However, setting that aside, this chapter will refer where appropriate to CATS and ECTS as if they were interchangeable on a 2:1 basis.

Where this becomes important for curriculum design is in specifying the overall requirements for an honours degree or any of the intermediate exit points that are available on most programmes. Table 1 summarises the credit values normally associated with each part of an undergraduate programme in England.

Table 1: Credit values and curriculum design

HE qualification as in FHEQ


FHEQ level

Minimum credits (CATS)

Minimum credits at the level of the qualification


Cert HE






Dip HE





approx 120

Bachelor’s degree with honours






Integrated Master’s degree






A normal interpretation of this is that to be awarded an honours degree, a student must have accumulated 120 CATS (60 ECTS) per part, with at least 90 CATS (45 ECTS) at each FHEQ level. The final row of this table will be discussed in section 5 of this chapter. Institutions will no doubt have their own rules and regulations for implementing the framework, so you may have no real choice in choosing the overall credit structure. Nonetheless, it is worth being aware of the structure, as it underpins curriculum design. Knowing and understanding the rules can sometimes create opportunities for creating some flexibility in design that will be discussed in section 9.

[2] Ibid.