The Bologna Process as a Model for Regional Integration


Over the 15 years that European stakeholders have been working towards developing the regional level qualifications frameworks, academic credit systems and quality assurance networks that define the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), there has been significant and growing interest from other regions and sub-regions of the world, as they look to boost international academic cooperation and mobility.

While opinions differ on what the Bologna Process has or will achieve, there is no question, according to a recent article [2] by Jane Knight, “that it has propelled other regions and sub-regions around the world to look more seriously at the significance and modality of building closer alignment of their higher education systems.”

In this article, we seek to highlight how the European higher education reform project has been applied and modeled by other regions, and indeed how the EHEA has engaged world regions directly by offering regionalization advice based on its experiences.

Bologna Engages the World

The Bologna Process has evolved from being a little understood, and somewhat obscure European project to an undeniably “significant illustration of this regional level of reform.” And while opinions differ on what Bologna has or will achieve, there is no question, Knight states, “that it has propelled other regions and sub-regions around the world to look more seriously at the significance and modality of building closer alignment of their higher education systems.”

Europe has invested considerably in promoting the Bologna reforms to other parts of the world through inter-regional mobility programs, policy dialogs, and institutional network projects. And, interestingly, the theme of the third Bologna Policy Forum, a parallel meeting to the 2012 Bucharest Ministerial Conference [3] designed to stimulate and intensify policy dialog, was: “Beyond the Bologna Process: Creating and Connecting National, Regional and Global Higher Education Spaces [4].”

A Statement [5] issued after the conference made clear the desire to build on Bologna to not only create other regional networks, but to also forge links between those networks in the interests of creating the broadest possible global opportunities for academic mobility and international cooperation in education.

“We continue to strive for open and transparent education systems and better balanced mobility within and between our higher education areas and systems. We want to intensify the academic exchange of ideas and people in our regions, and to create innovative networks.

In this context, we aim to continue working towards reducing the diverse obstacles for mobility between our education areas, such as the lack of transparency of qualifications, financial barriers for students, problems with academic and professional recognition, as well as administrative hurdles.”

While no one region or sub-region has taken the Bologna model and tried to replicate it wholesale, there are numerous examples of regions taking the pieces that are applicable to their goals – or that have had success in Europe – and applying them to their reality.  In other instances, we see Europe engaging world regions directly and offering regionalization advice based on its experiences.

What follows is a sampling of examples of where major world regions have adapted the EHEA experience to their own contexts, stages of development, and motivations for promoting regionalization.

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Latin America

Alfa Puentes

The ALFA PUENTES [7] project is a collaboration of more than 20 national and international university associations from Latin America and Europe, aimed at building Latin American regional cooperation and also Latin America-Europe cooperation. The project aims to build on the work of three sub-regional initiatives – the Andean Community [8], the Mercosur [9] region and Central America/Mexico – in developing wider regional convergence. Funded in part by the European Commission, activities for the second phase of the project (2011-2014) targeted quality assurance reform (Andean), improving credential recognition and transparency (Andean), building qualifications frameworks (Central America/Mexico), and increasing academic mobility (Mercosur).

A final ALFA PUENTES survey – “Transformations in Latin America Higher Education [10]” (TRESAL) – was recently published as a conclusion to the second phase of the project. It found, among many other things, that there is a growing emphasis on internationalization among higher education institutions in Latin America.

The TRESAL survey was composed of three parallel surveys: university leaders, faculty, and students across the three sub-regions. The findings are broad and documented in both an executive summary [11] (English) and a complete survey report [12] (Spanish). The results are expected to help strengthen institutions, help build the Latin American and the Caribbean Higher Education Area [13] (ENLACES) and contribute to cooperation in education, culture and science between Latin America and Europe.

With regards to academic mobility preferences, the report found that, “for some sub-regions, Europe is the first option and their own sub-region is also seen as a priority (in Mercosur for example). These results are an example of the potential for growth in mobility and cooperation within the Latin American region. The modest rise in interest in Asia and Australia should also be noted. In students’ responses, interest in studying abroad in other regions is as follows: 12% in Australia and New Zealand and 11% in Asia, in comparison to 18% in the U.S. and Canada and 17% in Europe.”

The TRESAL survey also found that Latin American students tend to pursue study abroad opportunities outside their home region to a greater extent than do students from, for example, Asia or Europe. This finding comes despite an increasing, although still small, number of regional mobility programs.

In concluding, the executive summary states, “development in Latin America requires higher education systems that can expand while at the same time increase quality, responsiveness and equity; for this reason, a common higher education area should be on the academic agenda. This would, among other benefits, facilitate cooperation and exchange, enhance the relevance and responsiveness of degrees and qualifications and ultimately reduce the social gaps in the region.”

Latin American and the Caribbean Higher Education Area (ENLACES)

Referenced above, ENLACES is a relatively new initiative for the regionalization of higher education in Latin America that was established after a region-wide UNESCO conference [14] held in 2008. Hosted by IESALC [15]– the UNESCO Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean – it is a platform created for the mobilization of projects and studies that support academic cooperation and knowledge sharing in the region.

As of August 2013, IESALC reports [16] that a number of projects have been implemented under ENLACES. These include a regional convention on the recognition of studies, titles and diplomas for Latin America and the Caribbean; the design of an information platform to support the Academic Mobility Program for Professors, Researchers and Students of Latin America; the development of a Map of Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, which brings together data on national higher education systems as a means of promoting academic mobility and the alignment of national and institutional policies.

Furthermore there appears to be a strong commitment to helping bring about the harmonization of national and sub-regional assessment and accreditation systems through the IberoAmerican Network for the Accreditation and Quality of Higher Education [17] (RIACES). Other current priority areas are recognition of studies and diplomas and academic mobility.

Tuning in Latin America

Another project that draws its roots from the Bologna Process, and that involves significant contributions from Europe is the ALFA Tuning Latin America Project [18].  The Tuning Project seeks to address the reform of institutional level structures through curriculum convergence across academic fields and levels, based on a common understanding of qualifications described in terms of workload, level, learning objectives, competencies and profile – or, in simpler terms, an output rather than input-based approach to curriculum design. From its start in Europe, Tuning Projects are now taking place across much of the world, including in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, the United States, China, Russia, Australia and Japan.

In Latin America, two major Tuning Projects were undertaken from 2004-2007 and 2011 to 2013, and Jane Knight reports that progress has reportedly been made “toward achieving a significant level of convergence across Latin American in 15 subject areas [19], a workload based credit system for use across the region, and a regional network of national Tuning Centers to facilitate learning outcome based teaching [20], learning, and evaluation strategies.”


Tuning Higher Education in Africa

In Africa, the European Commission and African Union (AU) have developed an Africa-EU strategic partnership through which they have developed the African Higher Education Harmonization and Tuning Project, [21] an initiative through which the AU plans to establish a framework for harmonization of Higher Education Programs in Africa. This builds on the AU’s 2007 release of a major strategic report, “Harmonization of Higher Education Programmes in Africa: A Strategy for the African Union,” outlining a plan for increased cooperation among institutions, national systems and major associations.

Launched in 2012, the Africa Tuning initiative is one of the major avenues being used to realize the goals set out under the AU’s Harmonization strategy. Currently in the pilot phase, and involving 60 institutions of higher education [22], the tuning project seeks to find common understandings and reference points in the design of curriculum and learning objectives in particular fields and subject areas. During the initial pilot phase, the 60 universities have been divided into five regional subject groups of 2 universities each: Medicine (North Africa), teacher education (South Africa), agriculture (West Africa), civil engineering (East Africa), mechanical engineering (Central Africa).

Through these common understandings and alignments of curriculum content the goal is to build comparable and compatible qualifications among countries, which in turn will have implications for cross-border mobility of students, regional academic credit systems, and potentially the harmonization of regional or continental education structures and systems.

Regional African Initiatives

East Africa

Since 2010 the East African Community [23] (EAC) has been working to develop a model for higher education harmonization in its bid to promote academic mobility between the five member countries: Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. This builds upon prior efforts to define common quality assurance priorities. The main goal of the project, coordinated by the Inter-University Council for East Africa [24] (IUCEA), is to establish a credit transfer system that will allow the movement of students and credits across borders and between institutions.

To date, the process has been slow moving, with issues related to national sovereignty hindering progress, in addition to the broad variations in quality and curricula, length of degrees, all frustrated by inadequate funding.

The EAC Quality Assurance Initiative [25] is currently being developed under a regionally harmonized platform in collaboration with the German Academic Exchange Service [26] (DAAD). There have been a number of positive outcomes thus far, including the production of QA manuals that are being used by the universities within the region in establishing institutional QA units.

Meanwhile, there is a loose framework for credit transfer currently under discussion, although there is no current mechanism for cross-border transfer. According to Professor Nkunya Mayunga, executive secretary of the IUCEA, the hope is that a credit transfer system will be in place by 2015 [27], while the initial stages of developing a regional qualifications framework is slated for completion by the end of 2014.

North Africa

In Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, the French-speaking countries of the Maghreb, reforms have been underway for several years to align degree structures in accordance with those of the Bologna system. In the French-speaking world, this is commonly referred to as the Licence – Master – Doctorat (LMD) system.

In Algeria, these reforms were first introduced in 2004/05 and progress has been significant, with 354 new professionally oriented bachelor degree programs and 126 new masters programs being introduced in 2010/11 alone. In academic year 2011/12 there were an estimated [28] 3,193 bachelor-equivalent programs, 2,308 masters degrees and 880 doctoral programs.

Tunisia has been working closely with the European Union and, in 2013, formally established [29] a mobility partnership that, among other things, is designed to facilitate mutual recognition of qualifications, enhance the exchange of information, and promote academic mobility. Currently, there are 10 European countries involved in the partnership.

The Conseil Africain et Malgache pour l’Enseignement Supérieur [30] (CAMES), covering most of Francophone African higher education, enhances mutual recognition of qualifications, assists in the promotion of academic staff and facilitates academic mobility. It is also implementing structural LMD reform among its members, which will help to bridge the difference between the higher education systems in Anglophone and Francophone African countries. In 2012, it also formalized a regional commitment to shared goals in quality assurance [31], including a registry of quality assurance agencies, the articulation of best practices in institutional quality assurance and the award of a CAMES label of excellence for bodies that meet those standards. Through shared standards in quality assurance, CAMES also provides training in the implementation of LMD structures and programs.

West Africa

The West African Economic and Monetary Union [32] (UEMOA), composed of eight Francophone countries in West Africa, is working with member states to develop an integrated and harmonized space for higher education in the region.

The aim is to promote a sub-regional system open to the world and able to develop joint mechanisms for promoting quality, and ensure international recognition of degrees issued by institutions in the region. To achieve reform, UEMOA countries have made a number of commitments, including establishing national mechanisms for assessing the quality of academic programs and establishing a regional mechanism for monitoring, coordination and sharing best practices in structural reform to promote LMD reform, first introduced in 2007.

Also in West Africa, mention should be made of the Network of Excellence in Higher Education in West Africa (REESAO), which groups several universities in the UEMOA countries, and whose objectives are to facilitate LMD reforms and advance university cooperation as a means of promoting academic mobility.

Southeast Asia

The number of Asian students traveling overseas for higher education dwarfs those from any other region of the world, especially when one considers whole degree programs versus shorter study-abroad periods. Traditionally, Asian students have looked towards North America and Europe as preferred destinations; however, that picture has changed in recent years and mobility has increasingly become inter-regional. This has been aided to a degree by a number of major multilateral arrangements aimed specifically at increasing mobility within the Asian region, most notably within the Southeast Asian region through a number of major bilateral and multilateral platforms.

With the integration of the Southeast Asian region through trade and investment agreements has come a number of recent initiatives to bolster the movement of human capital within the region. However, the diverse nature of the systems of higher education in Southeast Asia has created significant challenges in harmonizing structures and creating the necessary mobility tools, such as credit systems and qualification frameworks, to achieve the desired goals. Therefore, unlike Europe, “harmonization is about comparability; not standardization or uniformity of programs, degrees and the nature of higher education institutions [33].”

There three primary bodies driving the process of comparability of higher education in the region: the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization – Regional Center for Higher Education and Development (SEAMEO-RIHED [34]), ASEAN Plus Three [35] (Japan, China, South Korea), and the ASEAN Universities Network [36](AUN).

The SEAMEO-RIHED intergovernmental body is not new. It was formed in 1965 with the express purpose of promoting regional cooperation in education. Its agenda has developed over the years, but it remains primarily focused on promoting mobility and cooperation networks among the 10 member countries and also intra-regionally. The mechanisms or tools it is developing to achieve these goals are similar in many respects to the tools used in the EHEA. These include: the ASEAN QA Framework, an academic credit transfer framework, and the ASEAN International Mobility for Students (AIMS) Program [37]; however, there is no drive to align degree structures as in Europe and sub-regions of Africa.

The goal of creating an ASEAN, socio-cultural and political-security community among the 10 member countries by 2015 has also been a driver towards the creation of deeper educational ties. In 2009, a plan was put in motion to support the integration of universities across the ASEAN region, with the main building blocks being student mobility, credit transfer, quality assurance and research. The ultimate goal is the creation of a Common Space for Higher Education in Southeast Asia.

Frameworks, bodies and tools already in place, or under consideration, include the network of quality assurance agencies, known as the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network [38], which operates under the broader umbrella of the Asia-Pacific Quality Network [39], the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework, the AIMS Mobility Program [37] and the ASEAN Credit Transfer System [40].

Quality Assurance

As with other regional QA networks, the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network (AQAN) has been established to build trust among education systems to enable the portability of qualifications and the mobility of students within systems, based on commonalities in academic practices. It is also being developed as a reference tool for countries that do not have well developed systems.

The ASEAN Universities Network [36] is also developing common standards in QA practices through its AUN Quality Assurance Network, primarily among member institutions, but working in collaboration with AQAN. Those programs that meet guidelines set out under the program may apply to receive the AUN-QA label. As of 2013, AUN-QA Assessor teams had conducted assessments of 40 undergraduate programs in seven AUN member institutions and one associate member.

The AUN has also been working with the AQAN, the German Academic Exchange Service and the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education to harmonize agreed-upon standards within the region.

ASEAN Mobility Program (AIMS)

The AIMS mobility initiative grew out of a trilateral mobility program previously agreed to between Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand (M-I-T). It was expanded in 2009 to include Vietnam and currently helps close to 500 students annually study abroad, across 7 fields and in 7 countries. Exchange is almost exclusively at the undergraduate level, and students are helped financially by their respective governments. Not all institutions in participating countries can send students overseas through the AIMS program, as it is currently restricted to top-ranking institutions in the interests of ensuring quality standards and the portability of credits undertaken abroad.

ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework

As is the case in the European Higher Education Area, there is a diverse mix of higher education systems and traditions in the ASEAN region. In order to help promote student mobility and degree/credit portability, stakeholders are working to build a regional framework of qualifications – the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework (QRF) – that will allow for common reference points between levels and countries. It is also hoped that the QRF will provide reference points for the development of national qualifications frameworks, which are at significantly varying degrees of completion across the region.

Currently the QRF is being developed as a reference tool and is not binding or regulatory in any way. However, countries will be encouraged to help develop and endorse the ASEAN QRF, and then reference their qualification frameworks and quality assurance systems against it. However, a final agreement on a comprehensive ASEAN QRF still appears to be a long way off.

Asian and ASEAN Credit Transfer System

To date, there is no fully agreed upon credit system for the Asian region. However, in addition to many mutual agreements between institutions, the University Credit Transfer System (UCTS) has been developed by the University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific (UMAP) network as a trial system involving 35 countries and 360 institutions. Under the system, participating universities are required to complete a credit transfer agreement before they enroll foreign students. However, to date very few institutions are reportedly using the system.

The ASEAN University Network’s (AUN) Credit Transfer System (ACTS) has seen comparatively more usage and success to date. The AUN was created in 1995 and currently has 30 member institutions [41] across all 10 ASEAN member countries. ACTS is used as a means of promoting mobility between those institutions through the transfer of credit for work completed at a partner institution.

ASEAN states are currently working on a strengthened credit transfer protocol, ACTFA, that will include ASEAN members plus China, Japan and Korea, the first aspects of which may be adopted as early as this year. SEAMEO will pilot the program for student exchange among universities in Southeast and Northeast Asia for one to two semesters beginning this year.


There can be no doubt that the Bologna Process has provided significant impetus for other regional higher education cooperation efforts around the world. It will be interesting to see if the various harmonization efforts outlined above will continue, what they will achieve, and indeed which aspects of the Bologna model will gain the most significant traction in the various different regions.

Further down the road, regional harmonization is likely to encourage intra-regional efforts at student and faculty mobility, a trend that already appears to have started thanks in large part to the efforts of the EHEA – and associated organizations – in promoting best practices and lessons learned with other regions since the signing of the Bologna Accords in 1999.

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