European Curriculum Reform

By Nick Clark
Editor, World Education News & Reviews

The Bologna reform movement is almost 8 years old, and by now most people familiar with the process are well aware that the new structure of European degrees is based on a model of three- to four-year bachelor degrees and one- to two-year master’s degrees, followed typically by a three-year doctorate. However, knowledge of reform efforts at the curricular level is less widespread.

As the introduction of new degree programs is generally occurring at the university level on a department-by-department basis, it is often hard to gauge the degree to which study programs in Europe have been reformed as a result of the Bologna Process [1]. Furthermore, it is often unclear whether traditional long programs are being overhauled and replaced with genuine stand-alone bachelor and master’s degrees based on defined cycle-specific objectives, or if they are simply being dissected into three- and two-year periods of study with little change to course content.

The European Universities Association [2] reports that, ‘over half of European universities have reviewed their curricula entirely, using the Bologna reforms to implement a more student-focused approach.’ However, in Trends IV [2], the latest Bologna progress report, it is noted that, ‘structural change must be matched with proper redevelopment of the curricula, and often this has not been completed. Confusion sometimes exists regarding the objectives of the first cycle degree (which many mistakenly regard as a compressed version of former long-cycle programs) and in many cases there has not been adequate time for institutions and academics to address reforms in a comprehensive way and to benefit from the opportunities offered through restructuring the curricula.’

It seems, therefore, that while genuine curriculum reform is occurring at many universities; at others the reform process has been more structural or cosmetic in nature. As such, it is hard to offer generalizations about curriculum reform in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). However, guidelines and reference points for curriculum development have been, or are in the process of being formulated. From these guidelines it is apparent that the EHEA is moving away from input-oriented curriculum design (defined by what the professor teaches) toward output-oriented curriculum design (defined by the skills and competencies with which students will graduate). The definition and use of learning outcomes and student competencies as reference points in curriculum design have been the primary tools in moving the EHEA forward in this direction.

In this article, we offer a brief overview of these new student-centered guiding principles, how they relate to the future of European curriculum reform, and what this might mean for the international recognition of European credentials.

Learning Outcomes

Although it remains difficult to assess the extent to which European curriculums and degree programs have changed since the Bologna Process was initiated in 1999, it has become evident from numerous documents, communiqués and conference notes that the use of learning outcomes will be central to the reform effort. The Bergen Communiqué, which was released in 2005 at the latest summit of European education ministers, called for the adoption of an:

‘overarching framework for qualifications in the EHEA, comprising three cycles (including, within national contexts, the possibility of intermediate qualifications), generic descriptors for each cycle based on learning outcomes and competences, and credit ranges in the first and second cycles.’

Two years earlier, ministers issued the Berlin Communiqué [3] encouraging national qualifications frameworks to:

‘seek to describe qualifications in terms of workload, level, learning outcomes, competences and profile.’ 

From these two statements, it is clear that education ministers are seeking to find points of reference between national qualifications frameworks and the future European Qualifications Framework [4] through the use of learning outcomes. Because of the central role learning outcomes will play in the definition of new European curriculums and broader qualification frameworks, an understanding of what exactly is understood by the term learning outcomes would be useful.

As defined in the glossary of the official Web page of the Bologna Secretariat [5], learning outcomes are:

“Statements of what a learner is expected to know, understand and/or be able to do at the end of a period of learning.”

Key here is the desire to outline in a precise manner exactly what a learner acquires in terms of knowledge and competencies at the end of a degree program. In defining these objectives, new stand-alone bachelor and master’s programs are given relevance for both the workplace and for further studies.

Defining and implementing these European learning outcomes is proving to be one of the bigger challenges of moving the Bologna Process forward, and because very few signatory countries have a tradition of using learning outcomes in defining educational structures, there is a vast knowledge and implementation gap that will have to be bridged.

Dublin Descriptors

The first step in bridging this gap has been the definition of generic, cycle-specific learning outcomes. These generic learning outcomes will form one of the major building blocks of the European Qualifications Framework, which is being promoted as an overarching framework designed to find points of convergence between national qualifications frameworks.

Finalized in October 2004 by members of the Joint Quality Initiative [6], and known commonly as the ‘Dublin Descriptors,’ these learning outcomes can be considered a description of the transferable skills that students are expected to posses upon completion of each ‘Bologna-compliant’ degree cycle. They relate to any and all disciplines and define attributes such as problem-solving, communication, written, research, and team-working skills. The idea and a central tenet of Bologna is that while European degree programs will vary among institutions and subjects, they will nonetheless equip students with a set of cycle-specific core competencies designed to meet the needs of the workplace and also to prepare students for further studies.

The descriptors are being used in some countries as the basis for the formation of national qualifications frameworks, as foreseen by education ministers in 2005. They are also being used as a point of reference for discussion on subject-based descriptors.

A set of descriptors has been established for first-, second- and third-level degrees. After each degree cycle, students are expected to have attained a certain level of competence across five broad learning outcomes:

A complete outline [7] of the competencies expected for each outcome after each Bologna cycle is available from the Web site of the Joint Quality Initiative. The following summary tables are taken from the above-referenced Web site.

Differentiating Among Cycles

Knowledge and Understanding
1 (Bachelor)
[Is] supported by advanced textbooks [with] some aspects informed by knowledge at the forefront of their field of study
2 (Master)
provides a basis or opportunity for originality in developing or applying ideas often in a research context
3 (Doctorate)
[includes] a systematic understanding of their field of study and mastery of the methods of research associated with that field
Applying Knowledge and Understanding
1 (Bachelor)
[through] devising and sustaining arguments
2 (Master)
[through] problem-solving abilities [applied] in new or unfamiliar environments within broader (or multidisciplinary) contexts
3 (Doctorate)
[is demonstrated by the] ability to conceive, design, implement and adapt a substantial process of research with scholarly integrity
[is in the context of] a contribution that extends the frontier of knowledge by developing a substantial body of work, some of which merits national or international refereed publication
Making Judgments
1 (Bachelor)
[involves] gathering and interpreting relevant data
2 (Master)
[demonstrates] the ability to integrate knowledge and handle complexity, and formulate judgments with incomplete data
3 (Doctorate)
[requires being] capable of critical analysis, evaluation and synthesis of new and complex ideas
1 (Bachelor)
[of] information, ideas, problems and solutions
2 (Master)
[of] their conclusions and the underpinning knowledge and rationale (restricted scope) to specialist and non-specialist audiences (monologue)
3 (Doctorate)
with their peers, the larger scholarly community and with society in general (dialogue) about their areas of expertise (broad scope)
Learning Skills
1 (Bachelor)
have developed those skills needed to study further with a high level of autonomy
2 (Master)
study in a manner that may be largely self-directed or autonomous
3 (Doctorate)
expected to be able to promote, within academic and professional contexts, technological, social or cultural advancement

Source: “Shared ‘Dublin’ descriptors for Short Cycle, First Cycle, Second Cycle and Third Cycle Awards,” Joint Quality Initiative, Dublin, Oct. 18, 2004

It is important to note that while the Dublin Descriptors have been used as a terms of reference for the development of national qualifications frameworks across Europe, currently only a limited number of countries have adopted them in defining new curriculum frameworks. For an overview of the extent to which the Dublin Descriptors have been adopted by Bologna signatory countries, please see the results of a 2004 survey [8] of national representatives to the Bologna Follow Up Group [9] (the steering committee responsible for moving the Bologna Process forward).

According to the findings of this survey, all but one of the 30 countries that volunteered information had initiated some kind of activity related to learning outcomes. The survey also found that, ‘the following countries have developed (or are at the advanced stages of implementing) integrated systems that employ learning outcomes approaches at all levels of educational activity: Belgium (Flemish Community), Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.’

Subject-Specific Reform: ‘Tuning Educational Structures’

While the Dublin Descriptors provide an insight into generic, cycle-specific learning goals at the national and international level, the project known as ‘Tuning Educational Structures in Europe’ [10] is a university-based initiative, in progress since late 2000, that seeks to find subject-specific points of reference on the basis of agreed competencies and learning outcomes. The first two phases of the project (2000-2004) focused on the following subject areas [11]: business administration, chemistry, earth sciences, education sciences, European studies, history, mathematics, nursing and physics. Under the third and current Tuning phase, subject specialists are defining reference points for curriculum design in a further 18 disciplines.

Representatives from more than 130 institutions of higher education are involved in the process, and as the name “Tuning” suggests, they are not seeking to harmonize degree programs, rather they are looking to develop points of reference, convergence and common understanding.

Because the subject-level descriptors are being developed from the bottom up, in consultation with academics, students and employers, the hope is that implementation will be widespread. Furthermore, the use of competencies (knowledge, understanding and skills) in defining learning outcomes allows the flexibility required to accommodate the array of learning traditions and cultures across the EHEA, while at the same time offering tangible areas of convergence. Beyond the EHEA, the transparent nature of the process should greatly increase the comparability of European degrees, and therefore the mobility of the continent’s students. It will also aid foreign credential evaluators and graduate admissions advisers in accurately assessing European degrees.

Transparency and Recognition

The use of learning outcomes in evaluating foreign academic credentials, where possible, offers the opportunity to move from traditional quantitative evaluation measures, such as length of study and type of course studied, to more qualitative measures such as student competencies gained through the course of study. Much as an interviewer might ask a prospective employee what skills he or she would bring to the employer, credential evaluators and graduate admissions advisers can use learning outcomes to help assess whether the skills of prospective students are adequate for further studies. Not only will they have knowledge of what the student had to do to earn a degree, but also what they can do now they have that degree.


While the full integration of common European learning outcomes into national qualification frameworks still appears to be something of a distant goal, the Dublin Descriptors and Tuning projects offer a window into the direction that curriculum design is headed in the European Higher Education Area. This increased level of transparency will offer evaluators outside the EHEA the opportunity to move beyond structural features alone when assessing foreign academic credentials, allowing them also to consider output-based factors. These elements will not only simplify the recognition process but also increase accuracy in assessing academic qualifications while also promoting mobility between different higher education systems.