The Bologna Process and Academic Values

By Ivan Leban, Professor at the University of Ljubljana1 [1]

Higher education in Slovenia

A Slovenian chemist by profession, I have taught chemistry and crystallography at the University of Ljubljana [2] for 36 years. Influenced by my own international experience as a Ph.D. student in the United Kingdom back in 1973, I have been greatly involved in the implementation of Bologna reforms at my university.

The higher education system in Slovenia consists of only four state universities and some other small higher education institutions. Only the University of Ljubljana is a complete and national university, with art academies and studies in medicine and veterinary science. The University has a total of 26 faculties with more than 100 undergraduate programs and roughly the same at the graduate level. Out of the approximately 360 Ph.D. degrees in Slovenia, 320 are conferred at the University of Ljubljana each year. Within the Slovenian population of around two million, more than 80 percent of the student body are now continuing their studies at an institution of higher education. It is inevitable that the implementation of the Bologna declaration will take place fully in Slovenia, as it is enforced by our Law of Higher Education (2004).

The role of the university

In this respect, I am skeptical to some degree about the regional Bologna higher education movement and reforms. Under the Bologna Declaration [3], universities are obliged to perform, encourage and introduce certain activities, such as the mobility of students and teachers, institutional accreditation and evaluation, award diploma supplements, increase transparency of teaching and research, and engage in bi/multilateral cooperation. Many of these, universities were performing already, but now a more systematized approach to these activities has been introduced. For the first time, it seems that politicians have dared to state clearly that universities and higher education more broadly has to be subordinated to the labor market – effectively, to those who provide the capital. It is also the first time during the nearly 900-year history of academia that a large union of states has conspired against the institution of the university.

Independence from political authority.

As we know, “the western-type university was born in the 11th century, mainly in northern Italy and England, because there were people who wanted to teach and acquire knowledge without royal or ecclesiastical control and influence. Their concept was really successful and the universities founded a little later in Paris, Prague, Uppsala, Vienna and elsewhere have decisively changed the cultural and political face of Europe. When Wilhelm von Humboldt championed the unity of teaching and research in the early 19th century, he put a finishing touch to one of the proudest achievements of our civilisation.”2 [4] As the existence of universities is now heavily dependent on vested capital, there are also some doubts about the academic statements made in the Magna Charta Universitatum [5], a document signed in 1988 by 388 delegates from 80 European universities and often viewed as a precursor to the Bologna Accords. The Charta seeks to encourage stronger bonds between European universities, and states:

“In order to meet the needs of the world around it, university research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power”.

Which scenario will unfold in Slovenia? Four-year studies will eventually be shortened to the European standard of three years, and academic studies will be changed to more vocational ones. Increasingly, fees will have to be paid for the second cycle of university studies, but also students who finish the first cycle after three years will be forced to pay fees, namely for lifelong learning.

Education as a public good?

Being influenced by capital, the glossary of the Bologna reform is now full of terms known from industrial production, such as best practice, excellence, competitiveness, and sustainable development. I am also afraid that the academic vocabulary will soon contain the words: franchising, outsourcing and off shoring, and that degrees will be obtained at retail prices. Some of these words have even become buzzwords of the Bologna Process.

At this point we have to ask ourselves: Are students really ‘raw material’ and ‘human capital’ who become ‘value added’ when they complete the ‘educational process’ with their degree? And what is really happening to traditional academic values? In the 2003 Berlin Communiqué [6], it is written: “Ministers (responsible for higher education) reaffirm the importance of the social dimension of the Bologna Process. The need to increase competitiveness must be balanced with the objective of improving the social characteristics of the European Higher Education Area, aiming at strengthening social cohesion and reducing social and gender inequalities both at national and at European level. In that context, Ministers reaffirm their position that higher education is a public good and a public responsibility. They emphasise that in international academic cooperation and exchanges, academic values should prevail.” The wording ‘education as public good (free access, no tuition fees, etc)’ has not appeared again, neither in the Bergen Communiqué of 2005, nor in the London Communiqué of 2007.

Academic values

Let us ask again, what is really happening to academic values? This is all connected to the role of universities in society. Needless to say, academic values and human rights are not really explicitly mentioned in the papers of the European Union regarding universities. However, we (students and academics) should constantly stress the importance of academic values such as freedom of thought, free access, equality and collaboration. To support this, I cite the serious omission made by politicians in the 2003 Berlin Communiqué in the last paragraph on degree structures:

Ministers stress their commitment to making higher education equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means.

This sentence was lifted, verbatim, from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, UN resolution, from 1966, article 13, part 2(c) which says:

The States Parties recognise that, with a view to achieving the full realisation of this right: higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.

Here “progressive introduction of free education” means that while states must prioritize the provision of free primary education, they also have an obligation to take concrete steps towards achieving free secondary and higher education.

Since the “social dimension of the Bologna Process” as mentioned in the Berlin Communiqué is supposed to incorporate these “concrete steps,” I am concerned that the last part of the sentence (as bolded above) was omitted from the text of the Berlin Communiqué.

Labor-market approach

Furthermore, I am convinced that the Bologna Declaration stands in contradiction to the abovementioned International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Bologna Declaration promotes European citizens’ employability and the international competitiveness of the European higher education system. In other words, educate primarily for the European labor market, rather than considering that “the education has to be directed to the full development of the human personality, to the sense of its dignity, and that education will strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further to promote the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.” Instead of moving towards free higher education, the Bologna Process is leading to the introduction of tuition fees and private universities into our study system, and Slovenia is no exception.

Reform for reform’s sake

Some of my other concerns center on the ideas of employability, career-oriented study and diploma supplements. I am sure there are experts in Europe who can analyze education systems and then gradually exchange any negative aspects for better options. But, the Bologna Process reminds me of socialist -type reforms: reform for reform’s sake. We implemented them in the former Yugoslavia, one after another: we had credit points in 1948, two-tiered systems up to 1996 and career-oriented education for employability later. Yet all of these experiments failed. Now, Europe is somehow copying these failed Yugoslav approaches.

Do not mend what is not broken

The role of universities is to educate people, to provide students with general, universal knowledge, to create an autonomous human being – a free thinker. They are not meant to simply educate people for the labor market. I agree with the proverb: ‘Do not mend what is not broken.’ There are many examples of excellent universities in Europe and let us use good ‘European practice’ to improve the negative aspects. This is simply my personal view on some aspects of the current reforms in higher education and I would be glad if some of you who read these lines would also consider them. I am not asking for action – just that you think about them.

1 [7] This article was influenced by the presentation: Can the university survive the Bologna process? by Professor Jože Mencinger, Rector of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and an essay by Professor Rastko Močnik, University of Ljubljana, entitled Bologna conspiracy published in the weekly Slovenian journal Mladina, Ljubljana, 24 May 2004. Preferred reading also includes the critical writings by Professor G Schatz in the book: Jeff’s view on science and scientists (Elsevier, 2006).

2 [8] See R Močnik paper.