Bologna Declaration Addresses Higher Education in European Union

by Robert Sedgwick, Editor, WENR

On June 18-19, 1999, representatives from 29 countries convened in Bologna to hammer out an agreement aimed at promoting greater harmonization among Europe’s diverse systems of higher education. After much delay, the document was signed by all in attendance.

The overall objective of the 10-year plan is to break down the barriers that currently inhibit student mobility and post-graduate employment. In many ways, it is a follow-up to an earlier agreement ratified in Sorbonne two years ago. Although the Bologna Declaration largely provides a framework for the adoption of compatible credit systems and understandable degree structures, it also addresses a number of broader issues relating to the future of higher education within the evolving European Union.

The declaration states: “A Europe of knowledge is now widely recognized as an irreplaceable factor for social and human growth and as an indispensable component to consolidate and enrich the European citizenship, capable of giving its citizens the necessary competencies to face the challenges of the new millenium, together with an awareness of shared values and belonging to a common social and cultural space.”

On one hand, the Bologna Declaration is part and parcel of the ongoing trend to achieve greater cultural and economic unity in the region. At the same time, however, there is a tangible need to redesign and harmonize academic programs to better prepare students for emerging regional and international labor markets. The dismantling of the welfare state and the rapid globalization of knowledge and business have largely rendered Europe’s traditional systems of higher education obsolete. New degree structures and curricula will have to be devised to accommodate the changes.

In addition, the signatories of the Bologna Declaration expressed the need to enhance international competitiveness in the overseas student market through the creation of a more viable and unified European system of higher education.

The following proposals are set forth in the Bologna Declaration:


I. The Two-Cycle System of Higher Education

Perhaps the first question we should address is: Can the Bologna agreement be effectively implemented in a region where higher education is a veritable patchwork of curricula and degree structures? In most non-European countries today, the structure of higher education is based on a two-cycle (undergraduate—postgraduate) system. This is not the case in Europe, however, where the length of studies and the structure of degrees can differ significantly from one country to the next.

Hence, in May 1998, the Sorbonne Declaration called for the reorganization of higher education studies into an undergraduate cycle, leading to a first qualification and a graduate cycle leading to a master and/or doctoral degree. It was further suggested that participating countries adopt a “European model” with two main levels of qualifications requiring three, five, or eight years of study. These roughly correspond to the U.S. system of bachelor, master and doctoral levels.

However, implementation of the two-cycle model is problematic on several levels. For one thing, no single country in Europe has an across-the-board system of three-year first degrees in all sectors of higher education or in all disciplines. Bachelor-type programs in Europe generally last between three and four years. In Britain, for instance, most bachelor degrees take three years to complete, but many require four years of study, particularly academic programs that require work-study, internships or studying abroad (for instance, languages).

In Denmark and Finland, bachelor programs, which were introduced in 1988 and 1994 respectively, last for three years but are not offered in all fields. On the other hand, the duration of the bachelor degree program varies between three and four years in other countries (Ireland, Iceland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia).

Furthermore, in most countries there are significant differences between the actual time it takes students to finish a program and the official duration period. In Austria, Germany, Italy, Greece and other countries it is quite common for students to take up to seven years to complete a four- five-year curriculum. Likewise, in France, only one third of all students receive their maîtrise degrees in the official four-year duration.

An additional problem with the three-five-eight system is that it would be difficult to implement in countries where one-to two-year academic programs are offered. French IUTs, Tecnico Superior in Spain and HND courses at British Colleges of Further Education are all institutions offering “short” degree programs, which would not benefit from adopting the proposed model.

Although there has been little harmonization with regard to first-degree programs, European countries have agreed on a total duration of five years (with a few exceptions) for a master’s degree. Therefore, it should be easier to compare degrees at this level while adopting a common framework for measuring qualifications.

The proposed eight-year duration period for a doctoral degree has been exceedingly problematic. The actual duration of doctoral programs tends to vary significantly according to discipline throughout most of Europe. Complicating matters further, a few countries have “intermediate” doctorates (the Lisenciaatti in Finland and the M.Phil in the United Kingdom) while others offer a “higher doctorate” called the Habilitation as the highest obtainable academic degree. The latter is especially prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe.

II. Moving Towards Reform

Concerns were also raised at the Bologna conference about the potential loss of autonomy should the region agree to the creation of a single entity representing all European systems of higher education. University officials were reluctant to surrender academic autonomy and control over curricula and course content. At the same time, ministers expressed some unwillingness to hand over control of their countries’ education systems to the European Commission and other transnational bodies. In addition, many Europeans view the three-five-eight model as a foreign British-American import that threatens European identity.

Despite these misgivings, the international trend towards the kind of higher education system proposed by the Bologna Declaration is already making significant headway in Europe. In recent years, the Commonwealth, Latin America, Asia and Eastern European countries have all adopted the British-American model in some form or another. What all these systems have in common is a basic structure differentiating undergraduate and postgraduate studies. The general consensus in Europe at the moment seems to be that the two-cycle system is so prevalent worldwide that Europeans will only succeed in isolating themselves unless they conform to international standards.

Many governments have already successfully adopted measures to shorten the duration of first-degree programs. These reforms are primarily aimed at discouraging young people from becoming “professional students,” a trend that has long carried negative repercussions: Delayed entry into the labor market; high costs for students, families and the state; and high dropout rates among students in some countries.

A number of governments have attempted to reduce the duration of degree programs by imposing financial penalties on students who do not complete their studies on time. In Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, for example, the duration of grants has been curtailed and in the latter two countries transformed into loans if the allotted time to finish a program exceeds one year. The Irish and British have attempted to remedy the problem by imposing different tuition fees for undergraduate and graduate studies.

III. Challenges from Abroad

The trend towards globalization, the utilization of new technologies in distance learning programs, the predominance of English as the world’s lingua franca and intensified competition for international students all represent formidable challenges to European systems of higher education.

The expansion of offshore and franchised campuses, in addition to the recent proliferation of distance learning ventures, have led to the emergence of a new parallel education system alongside the traditional state-run, tuition-free university system.

In the early 1990s for the first time ever, there were more Europeans studying in the United States than Americans studying in Europe. This trend continued to grow late into the decade as more and more American institutions looked to Europe to compensate for losses incurred by the economic crises in Asia and Latin America.

Franchising agreements allow universities to open branch campuses in European Union countries, making it possible for European students to earn foreign degrees without having to leave home. At the same time, distance education programs from abroad have tapped into the rising demand for degrees among working professionals in Europe and elsewhere.

Europe is attempting to meet these challenges through concerted efforts aimed at recruiting more international students, while expanding campuses and programs to other parts of the world. Many European countries are already offering academic programs in English to attract foreign consumers of higher education, particularly from Asia. But while Europeans need to consolidate their diverse systems of higher education and become more like the rest of the world in terms of curricula and degree structures, the real challenge will be whether or not Europe can adapt to the changes engendered by globalization without losing its identity.

For further analysis of the Bologna Declaration, please refer to Trends and Issues in Learning Structures in Higher Education in Europe by Guy Haug.