eWENR, March/April 2001: The Bologna Process
by Robert Sedgwick
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 competences to face the challenges of the new millennium, together with an awareness of shared values and belonging to a common social and cultural space.
— The Bologna Declaration
n educational revolution is sweeping Europe. In June 1999, representatives from 29 countries gathered in Bologna, the birthplace of Europe’s oldest university, to forge an agreement aimed at achieving “greater compatibility and comparability” in their diverse higher education systems over the next decade.
Only two years later and many countries have already implemented groundbreaking reforms that not long ago would have met with severe opposition from governments and universities alike.
Indeed, the breakneck speed at which some of these educational changes are occurring has taken many observers and especially skeptics by complete surprise.
Because Europe is a region historically divided by language, religious denominations and nationalism, each country’s system of higher education developed independently of each other over the centuries resulting in a mélange of mutually incomprehensible and non-transferable degrees.
The time it takes to earn a first degree can vary significantly from three years in the United Kingdom to seven years in Italy and Germany.
Students earning qualifications in one country often have difficulty obtaining employment in a neighboring country where his or her academic credentials are not recognized.
A pre-Bologna Declaration survey prepared under the auspices of the European Commission revealed that there were even more degree structures in Europe than there were countries.
In some cases there were as many as 100 different qualifications found within a single country.
As a result, credential evaluators have had to contend with a confusing hodgepodge of European degrees and qualifications, which they somehow have to explain to employers.
Until Bologna, little was done to challenge the status quo, and suggestions to adopt an alternative system were largely ignored.
Europeans have always been slightly suspicious of foreign imports, even when originating from neighboring European countries, and universities in particular have served over the years as the standard bearers of tradition and national pride.
Educational reforms were rarely — if ever — introduced through transnational agreements, but were formulated and implemented by the ministries of education within individual counties.
Previous efforts to implement many of the same reforms outlined in the Bologna Declaration have not been very successful.
In 1990, for instance, Italy introduced a three-year-degree program that was more job-oriented than the six-year laurea degree, but few students enrolled in it.
Two years later the executive branch of the European Union called for similar reform measures, but the proposals were quickly squelched under a barrage of protests from the traditionalists, concerned about the imposition of standardization from above.
Hence, the Bologna Declaration, underpinned by a similar agreement ratified in Sorbonne two year earlier, is in many ways a landmark document.
It commits the signatories to work towards the “Europeanization” of higher education by paradoxically adopting the Anglo-American model, which features a two-tiered degree structure.
Unlike most of the existing systems in Europe, higher education in both the United Kingdom and the United States emphasizes a clear distinction between the first and second qualifications (referred to as undergraduate and graduate in the U.S.A.).
Despite the fact that the proposed two-tiered system did not originate anywhere on the European mainland, most of Europe eagerly endorsed it, along with the other proposals mapped out in the declaration.
Road to Reform
Since the signing of the Bologna Declaration, the strongest move towards convergence has been the consensus on a three-year bachelor’s degree (although there are several countries where this qualification requires between three and four years of study).
Progress is moving unevenly: Italy and Switzerland, for instance, are among the countries either conducting or planning pilot programs based on the two-tiered system of higher education.
However, the most dramatic changes to date have occurred in France and Germany, where new bachelor’s and new master’s degrees have been introduced (for further information on Germany please refer to the Practical Information section of this issue). Other countries still have a long way to go.
In March of this year, 650 representatives from 45 European countries met in Salamanaca, Spain, to push for the speedy implementation of reforms already begun by some governments.
In addition to introducing bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the conference attendees, including the heads of universities, student and faculty associations and members of the European Union, also strongly support the:
Adoption of an interregional credit system so students can accumulate academic credits for courses completed.
Implementation of the diploma supplements, which are designed to clearly explain completed academic programs to employers and academic administrators in other countries.
Establishment or strengthening of individual systems of accreditation to work together with the interregional European Network for Quality Assurance, created last year under the auspices of the European Union.
For more information on the Salamanaca Conference, go here.
The Need for Transnational Education
Why, after years of intransigence, have Europeans suddenly agreed to unify their diverse systems of higher education?
On one hand, the Bologna process is completely in synch with other pan-European trends that have impacted the region in recent years.
The collapse of the eastern communist bloc in the late 1980s, German unification, the scramble to join the European Union, and the introduction of a single European currency (the euro) are all developments that have promoted greater political and economic convergence among the countries of Europe.
It is not surprising then that higher education would follow suit.
At the same time, there has been a discernible need to redesign and harmonize academic programs to better prepare students for job opportunities in the newly emerging regional as well as 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.
Universities are too research oriented, programs are too long and the cost of supporting students exceedingly high.
In short, the old system, which was designed primarily to educate aspiring academics and civil servants, has grown too sclerotic to adequately respond to the demands of the new economy.
It is precisely this deficiency that is impelling Europeans to radically restructure their degree systems and curricula into a more unified system of higher education based largely on the Anglo-American model.
Diversity in higher education worked fine so long as there was insufficient incentive to cross borders in search of study and job opportunities.
But as Europeans inch closer to creating a regional economic power bloc, national borders are increasingly losing their significance.
Likewise, the Information Age has spawned a borderless culture of e-mail, e-learning and e-commerce, which are further enhancing the mobility and employability of students who are finding that they no longer have to be restricted to their national systems of higher education. In contrast to their elders, today’s European students are more concerned with gaining access to the global job market than they are with perpetuating the divisive traditions associated with nationalism.
Educational reform movements in Europe and elsewhere have historically been tied to wider socio-economic trends.
In the 1960s, for instance, post-war economic recovery throughout Europe greatly increased the demand for manpower in business and technology.
Governments responded to the changing market by introducing a binary system of higher education divided into academic and vocational tracks.
Student unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s was largely responsible for initiating the massification of higher education in many countries throughout Europe.
Similarly, the Bologna process is closely linked to today’s trend towards globalization with its market-driven and job-oriented approach.
International Competitiveness in Higher Education
Although the unified system of higher education proposed under the Bologna Declaration is mainly intended to benefit European students, increased competition in the international student market is also pushing Europeans towards convergence.
Countries that used to send large numbers of students to Europe are now sending them elsewhere to earn degrees.
Australia, Canada and the United States in particular have intensified efforts in the last couple of decades to boost foreign enrollments, especially from Asia, where demand for higher education outstrips local provision.
Moreover, by the early 1990s it was revealed that for the first time ever there were more Europeans studying in the United States than there were Americans studying in Europe. According to the most recent Open Doors report, Europeans are currently the second largest regional group (after Asia) in the U.S. accounting for 15 percent of total enrollments.
Adding to this trend, Europe has had to contend with the recent encroachment of virtual universities and branch campuses, mainly from the United States.
While the arrival of these foreign-based institutions does not pose an immediate threat to European higher education per se, they nonetheless provide students with alternatives to the traditional university systems.
— The Bologna Declaration
Hence, Europeans see in the Bologna Declaration not only an opportunity to increase the region’s share of the international student market, but also a chance to make higher education more attractive to their own students.
Countries like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, both of which import substantial numbers of international students could conceivably experience a bonanza of overseas enrollments under a unified system of higher education.
However, countries that export far more students than they import (e.g. Greece, Spain and Ireland) probably won’t have much to gain from intensified European participation in the international student market.
In response to these and other trends, higher education in Europe (and elsewhere) is becoming more customer-oriented, catering to student needs in a way that was virtually unheard of in the past.
The new approach is essentially market-driven: if a particular university does not have what the student is looking for he or she will simply go elsewhere. This applies to both foreign and domestic students.
As a result, institutions are offering more technical and business programs that will help their graduates land jobs.
The need to provide students with practical training is not exactly a novel concept.
As we mentioned earlier, European countries created binary systems of higher education in the 1960s to respond to the demands of the changing market. What is new today is the fact that there are many more choices than there were 30 years ago.
The emergence of new education providers, the proliferation of English as a global language and increasing recognition of foreign qualifications abroad mean that students are no longer limited to what the universities in their home countries have to offer.
As these trends continue to manifest themselves throughout Europe, higher education systems will inevitably become less insulated over time and more vulnerable to foreign competition.
Bollag, Burton; “European Nations Seek Compatible Degrees”; The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 9, 1999.
____________; “European Governments Are Urged to Speed Alignment of Higher-Education Systems”; The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 4, 2001.
Haug, Guy; Response to Prof. Sergio Machado’s presentation “Introduction to the Theme of Transnational Education”; Conference of the Directors General for Higher Education and the Heads of the Rectors’ Conferences of the European Union; Aveiro, Portugal, April 3-4, 2000.
Haug, Guy & Tauch, Christian; “From Bologna to Prague: Toward a Coherent European Higher Education Space”; International Educator; Fall 2000.
Swain, Harriet; “Leonardo Rides Again”; The Times Higher Education Supplement, Aug. 6, 1999.
Warden, Rebecca: “Meeting to Map a United Europe”; The Times Higher Education Supplement, Mar. 30, 2001.
E-mail your comments to the editor
The eWENR staff welcomes your feedback regarding this article or the newsletter in general.
The eWENR staff welcomes your feedback regarding this article or the newsletter in general.