The lexicon – everything you need to know about academic recognition and recognition of prior learning

There’s no getting around a few technical terms when it comes to higher education. But don’t worry, our lexicon gives you simple and comprehensive definitions and explanations in alphabetical order – from accreditation and options for objecting to state higher education laws.



In the higher education sector, accreditation means the formal recognition of study programmes, of the internal quality assurance systems of universities or of private higher universities within the framework of a regulated procedure for a limited period of time. Programme accreditation and system accreditation are prepared by accreditation agencies within the framework of a review procedure. The Accreditation Council decides on accreditation on the basis of expert reports. In addition to programme accreditation and system accreditation, universities can choose an alternative procedure agreed with the Accreditation Council and the respective state. The institutional accreditation of private universities is carried out by the German Council of Science and Humanities.

You can find more information on this topic in the AN! FAQ and on the website of the Germans Rectors’ Conference (HRK): (in German only)

The academic recognition of competences acquired at universities is an essential prerequisite for the qualitative and quantitative improvement of mobility and contributes to flexible learning pathways for students. Academic recognition at universities thus refers to competences or achievements that have been attained at universities and that are recognised with the aim of continuing studies in another study programme or at another university. This means that competences already acquired are not repeatedly examined and study times are not unnecessarily extended. Academic recognition can relate to individual modules or entire qualifications. The basis for academic recognition in Germany is the Lisbon Recognition Convention (LRC), which focuses on assessment of acquired competences with regard to a substantial difference and regards academic recognition as the norm, as well as the respective state higher education laws. Formally, academic recognition means assessing the value of a (foreign) educational qualification. In practice, academic recognition means that the recognising university treats the achievements attained at another university or in another study programme as if it had been attained at its own university or in the same study programme.


The burden of proof describes who must prove whether a recognition can be carried out or rejected. It plays an important role in individual recognition processes. If recognition of prior learning (RPL) is desired, it is the applicants’ responsibility to provide sufficient evidence of their learning outcomes and competences from non-university contexts so that the university can assess whether their content and level are comparable with the academic learning outcomes and competences. This is usually done through portfolios prepared by the applying students. It is their responsibility to provide the evidence necessary for a quality-assured RPL decision, i.e. the burden of proof lies with them. In the case of individual recognition of prior learning, success also depends on how well the sources and how comprehensibly the competences are prepared.

The Bologna Process began on 19 June 1999 in Bologna with the approval of the joint declaration on the European Higher Education Area by the ministers responsible for higher education from 29 European states. The aim was to achieve a European Higher Education Area by 2010 in order to make European higher education systems more compatible and comparable, more competitive and more attractive for Europeans as well as for students and academics from other continents. To this end, comparability of higher education systems in Europe is being worked towards with the help of the following instruments: the introduction of tiered study programmes with the three levels Bachelor, Master and Doctorate; the simplification of academic recognition, among others through the use of the Diploma Supplement; the introduction of the ECTS credit point system; cooperation in the field of quality assurance; the promotion of mobility of university staff and the strengthening of a European dimension in higher education.


Competences and qualifications acquired outside higher education are those that can be acquired in formal, non-formal and informal educational contexts. Formally acquired competences are acquired and/or promoted in a targeted manner in organised and structured contexts and evidenced by a certified qualification (e.g. secondary-school certificate, vocational training and further education qualification or degree). Non-formally acquired competences come from planned activities that include a distinct “learning element” but are not documented through transparent curricula and final examinations (e.g. in-company training). Informally acquired competences are acquired through (vocational) practical experience. This type of competence acquisition is usually not intended, organised or planned and is not documented in any detail. Competences acquired in the context of internships and voluntary work (so-called service learning) also count as competences acquired outside higher education that can be recognised with the aim of taking up or shortening university studies.

ECTS is the abbreviation for European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System – the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System.

ECTS is intended to ensure that students’ achievements at universities in the European Higher Education Area are comparable and can be recognised when moving from one university to another, including across borders.

ECTS credits (also: ECTS credit points) are not a form of grading but express the amount of time spent learning based on defined learning outcomes and the associated average workload (workload in hours) associated with a module. One credit corresponds to 25 to 30 working hours. Further information can be found in the current ECTS guide at:

Competence orientation describes a change of perspective that places the acquisition of competences in handling content-related problems in a subject at the centre of teaching and studying. Competence orientation is a change demanded by the European study reform. In essence, the aim is to enable students to learn to deal with specialised knowledge. It also aims to ensure that students develop not only subject-specific skills but also attitudes and values as well as interdisciplinary key competences. The reason is that specialised knowledge is the basis for academic achievement, but this alone does not result in the ability to deal with knowledge.

If the sum of the available information (especially in RPL procedures) does not lead to a clear decision, competence assessment procedures can be used to evaluate applicants’ competences. Possible competence assessment procedures include, for example, the preparation of (seminar) papers, expert discussions or presentations on subject-relevant topics. This is not an assessment with the purpose of awarding a (new) grade or changing the existing grade, but an option to remove doubts about the competence that is to be recognised as prior learning.


Equivalence presupposes both a correspondence in content and a comparable level of learning outcomes from different educational contexts. The equivalency assessment is the systematic comparison of the knowledge and skills to be recognised with the learning outcomes of the study modules for which it is to be recognised. It forms the basis of recognition decisions. In principle, complete uniformity of the learning outcomes of the study module and of competences from prior learning experiences is not to be expected. Instead, a partial coverage between the learning outcomes, for example 75 %, is assumed.

In the case of recognition of non-university achievements, the equivalence – i.e. the basis for recognition of prior learning – must be proven by the student applicants themselves. In contrast to academic recognition, there is usually no reversal of the burden of proof here.


In individual recognition of prior learning (RPL) procedures, the equivalency assessment and the respective decision on RPL are made on a case-by-case basis. The students have to provide proof in an appropriate form of the existence of individual competences. If, in a number of individual cases, a particular certificate has been repeatedly recognised for a particular module or series of modules, reference may be made to previous decisions.

The basis of the procedure is the application and the portfolio, which are used to assess whether and to what extent the competences or knowledge and skills acquired outside higher education are equivalent to parts of the study programme in terms of content and level and can thus replace them.


A learning outcome is a way of describing what students should have learned at the end of a learning process. The outcome of the learning process can be knowledge, skills and competences. Their achievement needs to be verified by an examination. They can be described for courses, modules or study programmes (ECTS Guide 2015). In order to increase transparency and to provide better orientation for students, the module descriptions contain information on the intended learning outcomes of the respective modules. Well-formulated learning outcomes are also the basis for fair recognition of achievements attained at other universities and for the comparison of academic and non-academic competences. Learning outcome is a term that originated in English. In contrast to the German term Lernergebnis, learning outcome includes a procedural element relating to the acquisition of knowledge, skills and competences.

The “Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region,” the so-called Lisbon Recognition Convention (LRC), was drawn up on 11 April 1997 on the initiative of UNESCO and the Council of Europe, signed by 55 states and ratified by 53 states to date. Germany ratified the Lisbon Convention with the “Gesetz zu dem Übereinkommen vom 11. April 1997 über die Anerkennung von Qualifikationen im Hochschulbereich in der europäischen Region” on 16 May 2007, incorporating it into federal law. The convention regulates the recognition of university entrance qualifications, periods of study and degrees in the member states. The decisive innovation compared to older treaties is the concept of substantial difference, which states that all periods of study and qualifications acquired abroad will be recognised unless there is a substantial difference from the achievements acquired at the home university. Furthermore, the burden of proving that a particular achievement possesses a substantial difference lies with the recognising institution. The applicant also has the right to object to negative recognition decisions.

In this type of recognition of prior learning (RPL), a specific qualification, e.g. a training programme, is compared once with the competences to be acquired in the study programme at module level, i.e. its equivalence is assessed. Applicants who can prove that they have this qualification can then have the corresponding modules recognised without an individual assessment. This form of RPL is independent of the person. Thus, lump-sum recognition procedures relate in particular to formally acquired non-academic competences. Partnerships between the university and other educational institutions (e.g. vocational schools) are suited to this. In fact, the higher education acts of some Länder (cf. Art.40(3) Hamburg higher education act; Art. 20(3)(3) LHG Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania; Art. 25(3) Rhineland Palatinate higher education act) make provisions for them. As a result, students with appropriate qualifications are guaranteed RPL without the need for further evidence at module level when applying.

The learning agreement (LA) is an instrument of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), which facilitates the recognition of academic achievements during students’ stays abroad, thus promoting student mobility. The LA contains a comparison of the achievements to be completed at the foreign university (host university) with the achievements of the sending university (home university) that are to be replaced. Since it is entered into in advance of the stay abroad, it offers students a legal certainty. If the LA is signed by the examination board and the achievements included can be proven after the stay, there is an entitlement to academic recognition of the achievements recorded. The LA thus acts as an assurance of later recognition but does not replace the application for recognition. This application may deviate from the LA: only the modules from the LA named in the application are actually recognised. If the achievements attained deviate from the content of the agreement, there is no automatic entitlement to recognition. However, an application for recognition is still possible. In the ERASMUS+ programme, use of the LA is compulsory. Now, however, the use of LAs has become standard in almost all exchange programmes, and it is also recommended for freemovers (stays abroad without an existing university partnership). LAs can also be used for internships.


Student mobility takes place in various forms: on the one hand, as a temporary study or internship stay (credit mobility) or as a full study programme (degree mobility) abroad. On the other hand, students should also be able to change their place of study within Germany. That is why mobility within Germany is another important component. In addition, there are various forms of short-term stays (especially abroad), e.g. summer schools, excursions or language courses. Virtual mobility completes the range of opportunities for students to gain experience in other learning environments.

Modules refer to study units (e.g. courses and study times) that belong together in terms of content and/or method and that are limited in time. They can include various forms of teaching and learning (e.g. lectures, seminars, internships) and are usually completed with only one examination, the result of which is included in the degree certificate. The awarding of ECTS credits does not necessarily require a graded examination, but rather the successful completion of a module.

Modules are designed with a view to the learning outcomes students are expected to achieve. These are in turn aligned with the overarching qualification goal of the respective study programme. The structural and content-related division of a study programme into modules is also a necessary element of the ECTS system, which makes it possible to evaluate, compare and recognise academic achievements and the time spent on them uniformly throughout Europe.


Academic recognition and recognition of prior learning are administrative acts. Accordingly, the decision will be communicated to the applicant in writing. The time limit for objecting and bringing an action is twelve months. If the rejection notice additionally contains instruction on a legal remedy, which there is no legal obligation to do, the time limit for objecting and bringing an action is reduced to one month. If an objection is lodged within the respective time limit, the first instance (usually the examination board) must review the decision. If the examination board reverses its initial decision, recognition or partial recognition will be granted. If the objection is rejected, the student has further legal recourse to have the negative recognition decision reviewed by the courts. As a rule, legal action is also admissible directly without an objection. In some federal states there are different regulations, e.g. the objection procedure has been abolished or the applicants can request a review of the decision by the rectorate (e.g. in North Rhine-Westphalia or Bavaria).

If an application for academic recognition is submitted, the applicant has an obligation to cooperate. He/she is obliged to provide all the necessary information required by the university for a proper and conclusive decision. This includes, for example, module descriptions from a prior study programme. If the student is not cooperative and does not provide sufficient or sound documentation, the deciding body may stop the investigation prematurely and refuse recognition due to a lack of sufficient information. However, universities also have an obligation to cooperate or to provide information in accordance with Article III.3. 3 LRC (Lisbon Recognition Convention): They are obliged to provide students with relevant information (e.g. module handbooks) that they require for the recognition of achievements at another university.


Improved permeability between vocational and academic education has been at the top of the German federal and state governments’ education policy agenda for over 20 years. The two educational sectors will remain separate, but transitions between them should be possible. The aim is to offer all citizens the best possible educational opportunities in order to promote their development and to train a sufficient number of well-qualified professionals. This means for universities, for example, to include people with vocational qualifications with and without a school-based university entrance qualification and to offer recognition of vocationally acquired competences. Further information:, and (in German only)

In a (RPL) portfolio, the existing competences are presented through authentic documents as well as written documentation (e.g. curriculum vitae, learning diary, biographical questionnaires, documentary evidence, overview of recognisable modules) and assigned to the learning objectives of the respective module. The aim is to display one’s own knowledge and skills and to document formally, non-formally and informally acquired competences. The applicant independently reflects on and documents the process of competence acquisition and the acquired learning outcomes and relates these to the learning outcomes to be achieved according to the module description. The information in the portfolio must be objectively reviewed for equivalence by the university. An advisory session can provide a more detailed explanation of how the self-assessment of competences by students can be ensured.


The term recognition of prior learning (RPL) refers to the recognition at universities of knowledge and skills acquired outside higher education. RPL is of key importance for opening universities to non-traditional student groups and facilitates the transition between vocational education and higher education. The aim is not to repeatedly test competences that have already been acquired and, if applicable, to shorten study times in a quality-assured and sensible way. The competences may have been acquired in different educational contexts (formal, non-formal or informal). Universities can generally replace at most 50 per cent of a study programme with prior learning experiences from a non-university context. Corresponding regulations are to be anchored in the universities’ examination regulations.

When designing the recognition procedures, a distinction is made between individual, lump-sum and combined procedures.

In the case of an application for academic recognition, the university must prove that the achievements attained elsewhere can(not) be recognised. The burden of proof is therefore reversed here, in contrast to recognition of prior learning cases. If a university rejects an application, it must prove that there is a substantial difference between the competences acquired by the applicant and the competences to be acquired. If the university cannot prove a substantial difference between the competences, academic recognition must be granted. At the same time, the applicant has an obligation to cooperate by providing the necessary documents etc. for the assessment of the substantial difference. The reversal of the burden of proof here has its legal basis in the Lisbon Recognition Convention (LRC).


The basis for assessing an application for academic recognition is the concept of “substantial difference,” i.e. recognition decisions are made based on whether there is a substantial difference between the achievement one already has and the achievement to be replaced that is so significant that it would most likely prevent the applicant from successfully continuing their studies or fulfilling the qualification objectives of the study programme. The substantial difference is measured according to the following criteria: profile, level of study, workload, learning outcomes and quality of the institution and programme. With regard to the last criterion, an assessment is made whether the institution meets the standard of a (German) university and whether the study programme is accredited, for example. If, after reviewing the application, a university concludes that there is a substantial difference between the achievement to be recognised and the learning outcomes of the module, it must give reasons for this. The application for academic recognition is then rejected.

In Germany, a state higher education act (Landeshochschulgesetz) is a law by which the federal states (Länder) exercise their legislative sovereignty in the higher education sector. All federal states have a higher education act for their universities. The formulations in the state laws, e.g. with regard to academic recognition and recognition of prior learning, are based on a series of resolutions and specifications, e.g. of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany (KMK) or the Accreditation Council. Among other things, the act contains general regulations on the personnel structure and internal organisation of the universities as well as on the organisation of study, teaching and research, including higher education admission and degrees. The state higher education acts also generally require the universities themselves to lay down more detailed provisions on academic recognition and recognition of prior learning in their (framework) examination regulations.


The transcript of records is an instrument of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) and lists students’ achievements in an easily understandable and comprehensive form. The transcript of records supports the mobility of students, as the completed modules can be quickly recorded for the host and home universities. For each successfully completed module, not only the credit points but also the grade awarded at the university are recorded. Thus, students’ achievements are documented in both qualitative and quantitative terms.


Anyone wishing to study at a German university must prove that he or she is entitled to do so on the basis of prior schooling or vocational qualifications. As a rule, the university entrance qualification is the Abitur (German general university entrance qualification). The Fachhochschulreife is a university entrance qualification that provides access to study programmes at universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen/Hochschulen für angewandte Wissenschaften) and certain study programmes at universities. It is also possible to study without a university entrance qualification. A distinction is made here between subject-specific university access for those with vocational qualifications, the general university entrance qualification for holders of vocational upgrading qualifications and access for other vocationally qualified persons. The provisions that regulate access to universities for those with vocational qualifications, and thus also make it possible to study without an Abitur, are laid down in the higher education laws and legal ordinances of the federal states. Further Information: