Towards a European Higher Education Area: 15 Years of Bologna

The movement to harmonize degree structures, qualifications frameworks and quality standards across Europe began 15 years ago with the 1999 signing of the Bologna Declaration [1]. Eleven years later and one of the end of goals, the launch of the European Higher Education Area [2] (EHEA), was celebrated at a special meeting of European education ministers in Budapest/Vienna [3].

With the official launch of the EHEA there was an affirmation from ministers that much still needed to be done to achieve the broadest goals of the higher education area through the consolidation (and for some states, enactment) of reforms. The second decade of the current century, therefore, has been dedicated to consolidating the EHEA to better connect the education systems, institutions and students that make up, and exist in, the Bologna area.

Despite the acknowledgement that much still needs to be done within the EHEA to achieve the broadest of goals, Bologna has still made remarkable strides over the last 15 years, and it serves as an example for other regions of the world looking at forming similar cross-border agreements in higher education.

As an example of the interest that Bologna is creating in other regions of the world, the 2009 ministerial conference [4] in Leuven, Belgium was, for the first time, attended by not only ministers from the (then) 46 member countries but also ministers or heads of delegation from 15 countries from Africa, Asia, America (North and South) and Australasia as part of a ‘Bologna Policy Forum.’ This followed on from a commitment made in 2007 at the London Ministerial Conference to opening up the process to global partners and stakeholders, under an initiative known as the “Strategy for the European Higher Education Area in a Global Setting [5].”

The companion piece [6] to this article will look at some of the regionalization efforts that are in effect or on the drawing board across the world, while the focus of this article will be on the progress that European countries have made towards their goal of aligning degree structures and promoting academic mobility across the continent.

Bologna: A Quick Primer

The Bologna Process is an intergovernmental, inter-institutional process that seeks to establish a European Higher Education Area originally involving 29 European signatory countries and now encompassing 47 member countries [7]. The intention is that signatory countries will implement agreed-upon Action Lines [8] to ensure mutual confidence and recognition, and to enhance the quality, attractiveness and compatibility of qualifications, as well as promote student and staff mobility throughout the EHEA and beyond.

Bologna is closely linked to regional economic objectives defined under the Lisbon Agenda, which seek to boost the competitiveness, dynamism and knowledge base of the European economy. Bologna also has a strong social dimension: it addresses lifelong learning, widening participation, as well as intercultural awareness and understanding.

Membership of the EHEA spans all of Europe, with the exception of San Marino, Monaco and Kosovo, and even beyond the traditional continental boundaries, spanning the Eurasian landmass from Reykjavik to Vladivostok [9]. The most recent, and 47th, signatory to the Declaration was Kazakhstan (2010), while Russia’s almost 10 million students make up more than 25 percent of the EHEA’s student body. Indeed, three (Russia, Ukraine and Turkey) out of the five biggest student populations might be considered outside the traditional boundaries of Europe. Belarus is also eligible for membership, and is reportedly considering the reforms it would have to undertake to conform to Bologna norms [10]. Meanwhile, the 2015 Ministerial Conference is scheduled to take place in Yerevan, Armenia, in the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union.

Despite this impressive show of multi-lateral support for Bologna, the proof of its efficacy as a harmonization and mobility vehicle will be in the implementation details. And while much has been achieved since 1999 in defining and expanding what Bologna and the EHEA represents, the level of implementation varies significantly from member country to member country, and indeed from institution to institution.

From the outset, the intention of Bologna has been about improving transparency between higher education systems, facilitating recognition of academic qualifications, promoting academic mobility, and increasing exchange between institutions and individuals. The process does not seek to create a monolithic European system of higher education, rather it aims to maintain the diversity of national systems and universities, while encouraging the aforementioned goals through alignment.

The reforms are based on 10 objectives, collectively decided upon and introduced between 1999 and 2010, and which governments and institutions are currently implementing (at varying degrees of efficiency). Perhaps the most important and best-understood tenet of Bologna is the realignment of degree structures on a comparable three-cycle – bachelor, master, doctoral – system. The building block of this system is the European Credit Transfer System [11] (ECTS), which is being promoted for use as both a transfer and accumulation system, and being assessed against a competency-based, rather than workload-based, set of learning outcomes as defined by the overarching European Qualifications Framework [12].

The 1999, Bologna Declaration [13] defined six main objectives:

1. Adopt a system of easily readable and comparable degrees
2. Adopt a system with two main cycles (undergraduate/graduate)
3. Establish a system of credits (ECTS)
4. Promote mobility by overcoming legal recognition and administrative obstacles
5. Promote European cooperation in quality assurance
6. Promote a European dimension in higher education

At subsequent meetings, European ministers responsible for higher education, set four additional goals:

7. Inclusion of lifelong learning strategies
8. Involvement of higher education institutions and students as essential partners in the Process
9. Promotion of the attractiveness of the European Higher Education Area
10. Include doctoral studies as the third cycle and promote young researchers

In 2012, ministers from across the EHEA met in Bucharest to assess the progress that had been made towards harmonizing education systems and to evaluate next steps. An accompanying conference report [14] was issued to measure the state of implementation among member countries across six broad issue areas

  1. Degrees and Qualifications
  2. Quality Assurance
  3. Social Dimensions in Higher Education (equitable access among diverse populations)
  4. Effective Outcomes and Employability
  5. Lifelong Learning
  6. Mobility

What follows is a summary of the progress that has been made towards meeting the goals established under each of the six issue areas not above.

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Degrees and Qualifications

Perhaps the best-understood aspect of the Bologna Process is the restructuring of degree cycles to bring about the convergence of national qualifications frameworks, to increase completion levels, and to promote intra-regional mobility. This has been achieved through the introduction of a three-cycle system (3-4 + 1-2 + 3), in combination with the development of a number of transparency ‘tools.’

Three tools in particular have been central to the harmonization process: an overarching European Qualifications Framework from which National Qualification Frameworks should be established, the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), and the appendage of the Diploma Supplement to all European degrees.

Qualifications Frameworks

The National Qualifications Framework is a tool for describing and clearly expressing the differences between qualifications in cycles and all levels of education. In 2005, ministers adopted the overarching Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area [16] (FQ-EHEA) and committed to the development of National Qualifications Frameworks based on the parameters [17] set out under the FQ-EHEA. Ministers agreed that while National Frameworks should maintain their own identities, they should refer to the three-cycle structure and use generic descriptors, based on learning outcomes, competences and credits to define what the holder of a particular qualification should know and be able to achieve upon graduation. The qualification frameworks should help learners move within a given education system as well as between systems, and are therefore a key tool promoting mobility and compatibility within and between education systems.

With regards to implementation, nine countries reported in 2012 that they had fulfilled all 10 steps required to meet self-certification requirements against the FQ-EHEA, with another 13 countries reportedly being close.  However, the Progress Report points out that these qualifications frameworks still do not link learning outcomes with the way student performance is assessed: intended outcomes of a program versus actual achievement. Nonetheless, the number of signatory countries with a national qualifications framework, whether complete or in progress, represents significant progress since the signing of the Bologna Declaration in 1999 when just Ireland and the UK had fully developed frameworks.

Three-Cycle System

Prior to the adoption of the Bologna Declaration, the variety of higher education structures in Europe were incredibly varied, from bachelor-master systems in some countries; long (four- to six-year) programs leading to a diploma roughly equivalent to a master’s degree in others; and some systems having several levels completely incompatible with the bachelor-master structure.

The 2012 Progress Report, based on 2011 data, states that “in just over half [26] of the [member] countries, the share of students studying in programs corresponding to the Bologna two-cycle system is more than 90%, and between 70-89% in another quarter [13] of the countries. At the same time, nearly all countries still have integrated long programs in those fields which prepare students for regulated professions.”

These integrated programs include: medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, architecture and veterinary medicine; and to a lesser extent engineering, law, theology and teacher training.

In the remaining countries, the share of Bologna-complaint programs is still small due to late adoption or the late introduction of the necessary legislative changes.  Laggards include Austria (47%), Germany (36%), Slovenia (31%) and Spain (4%). In Russia and Macedonia, no institutions are offering Bologna degree structures.

The extent to which first degree holders continue their studies at the master’s level varies quite considerably across the EHEA. In a majority of countries, the rate ranges from 10 to 24 percent, while in 13 other countries the share is between 75 and 100 percent. According to the Progress Report, this may be due to the fact that, “the first cycle may not yet have been developed as a qualification giving access to the labor market.”

European Credit Transfer System

The ECTS system was adopted as a means of promoting the most widespread student mobility possible. Originally designed in 1988 as a means of assigning credits to foreign students under the Erasmus mobility program, it has since been expanded for use in all European institutions for both domestic and international students, and for both the transfer and accumulation of credits. The award of credits is based on student workload and progress towards the defined learning outcomes of a particular course, program or level.

Under the Bologna model, a full-time annual load is equal to 60 ECTS credits. As of 2010/11, 14 higher education systems across Europe were offering first degrees of 180 credits (three years) in 75 percent or more of programs. A total of 13 education systems offered 240 ECTS (four years) first degrees in 75 percent or more of programs.

The implementation of ECTS as a transfer and accumulation system is reportedly “almost complete.” However, “linking credits with learning outcomes [is not complete] and in some cases other compatible credit systems are used instead of ECTS.”  A total of 19 systems currently link all parts of programs comprehensively and systematically to learning outcomes, according to the 2012 Bucharest report, which also states that, “in most countries, there is a certain measure of hours of student work per credit: it is generally within an interval between 25 and 30 hours.”

In the second cycle masters degree, the 120 ECTS (two-year) model is by far the most widespread, being present in 42 higher education systems. A total of 26 countries use this model in more than 75 percent of programs. The one-year, 60-75 ECTS model is present in 27 countries and dominates in eight systems. The 90 ECTS model is present in 21 systems, although typically is less commonly used.

The 180 + 120 ECTS model (or 3 + 2), therefore, is the most widespread across the EHEA, but a number of other combinations, as noted above, are also present. Although less widespread, a number of countries offer integrated programs in regulated professional disciplines of 300-360 ECTS (five to six years).

For an in-depth understating of the ECTS system, the European Commission offers an ECTS Users’ Guide [18], last updated in 2009.

Diploma Supplement

The Diploma Supplement is a standardized template appended to academic awards and containing a description of the nature, level, context, content and status of the studies completed by the individual noted on the diploma. It was introduced in 1999 as a means of promoting transparency within the Bologna area. Since 2005, ministers have agreed that all graduates should receive the Diploma Supplement automatically and free of charge, and to a large extent this has been accomplished.

By 2012, 25 higher education systems reported that they issued the Diploma Supplement automatically with all credentials. In 22 other countries, either all Diploma Supplements or those in the non-national language are only issued upon request. In five countries they are not issued at all, and in a further four they are issued for a fee, according to the findings of the 2012 Progress Report.

Most Diploma Supplements currently being issued do not provide reference to learning outcomes in the form of “what the graduate knows, understands and is able to do.” This highlights the current conclusion among many Bologna watchers that slow implementation of a learning outcomes approach to the award and design of degrees has become a hindrance for a number of Bologna Action Lines and Tools.

Quality Assurance

The Bologna Declaration has encouraged European cooperation in higher education quality assurance (QA), with a view to developing comparable assessment criteria and methodologies. The emphasis of the European model of quality assurance is on institutional responsibility, with core values focusing on: “a definition of the responsibilities of the bodies and institutions involved; evaluation of programs or institutions, including internal assessment, external review, participation of students and the publication of results; a system of accreditation, certification or comparable procedures; and international participation, cooperation and networking.”

In 2005, ministers adopted the “Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area [19]” (ESG), followed in 2008 by the establishment of the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education [20] (EQAR). The EQAR is a register of those agencies that substantially comply with the ESG. Currently there are 30 agencies from 15 countries on the register.

The ESG was developed collaboratively by representative bodies of quality assurance agencies (ENQA [21]), students (ESU [22]), universities (EUA [23]) and professional higher education institutions (EURASHE [24]), collectively known as the E4 Group [25]. The guidelines cover three broad areas: Internal quality assurance within higher education institutions, external quality assurance of higher education, and standards for external quality assurance agencies.

The 2012 Progress Report states that, since the inception of the Bologna Process, “the development of quality assurance has been rapid and there have been a number of major milestones in European cooperation,” before going on to note significant shortcomings. These include the lack of student involvement in the external QA procedures, uneven international participation in QA across the EHEA, and a reluctance by many countries to devolve responsibility for external quality assurance beyond national borders.

A majority of the QA systems within the EHEA focus on both institutions and programs, with most evolving from a focus on programs to institutions as a whole. It is noteworthy that the vast majority of QA systems now focus on a combination of institutions and programs (24) rather than on either programs (7) or institutions (4). This picture suggests that QA systems are becoming more complex as they evolve.

The report also shows that despite the establishment of the European Quality Assurance Register, many countries remain reluctant to devolve responsibility for external quality assurance beyond national boundaries, one of the primary reasons for the creation of the Register.

Social Dimensions

This is a complex, yet important, part of the Bologna Process. Adopted after the initial Action Lines were established in the early stages of the Process, the social dimension goals seek to broaden access to “socially disadvantaged groups” and make mobility opportunities available for all.

Defined in 2007, the overriding goal of the social dimensions Action Line is relatively simple: “the student body entering, participating in and completing higher education at all levels should reflect the diversity of [European] populations “and that “students [should be] able to complete their studies without obstacles related to their social and economic background.”

In assessing the impact of efforts in this area, the report states that, “available data on higher education participation and attainment show that the goal of providing equal chances for all has not yet been achieved. This does not mean that no progress has been made, but it is rather that there are still areas where supplementary effort is needed. In particular, the parental educational background still strongly influences chances to achieve a higher education degree and, in many countries, a migratory background also limits the odds to study at this educational level. Yet, a positive point is that almost all EHEA countries claim to work towards increasing and widening participation in higher education.”

Policy actions through which under-representation is addressed take a variety of forms. They often include financial support measures, special admission regimes, outreach programs as well as the provision of guidance and counseling services.

Effective Outcomes & Employability

This Action Line relates to higher education attainment and completion rates, and also to the labor market prospects – or employability – of graduates.

Employability and relevance to the labor market has been one of the central goals of the Bologna Process right from the outset, largely due to concern about high rates of graduate unemployment in many member countries. It is also of particular relevance because of the emergence of the European labor market and the rights of EU citizens to work in any other EU country.

In measuring effective outcomes, the Bologna Progress Report charts higher education attainment levels (the number of university graduates) and completion rates.

Completion & Attainment

Data from 22 countries suggest that, while student completion rates vary significantly, on average three out of four students within the EHEA complete their program of study. This is an improvement on pre-Bologna levels, and the report suggests that this is due to the implementation of the two-cycle structure and the introduction of ECTS, both of which allow for a greater degree of flexibility and portability in earning a degree.

An important aspect of the new Bologna degree structure is the emphasis that completion of the first-cycle degree should give access to the second cycle. Implementation reports from 2005 and 2007 suggested that there remained significant obstacles to access between cycles. The 2012 report states that these barriers have largely been removed for access between first and second, and second and third cycle degree programs.

In 13 systems, between 75-100 percent of first-cycle graduates continue their studies in the second cycle. Three countries report that less than 10 percent continue into the second cycle (Andorra, Kazakhstan and the UK). Commenting on the countries with high levels of direct progression between the first and second cycle, the Progress Report states, “it could be an indication that the first cycle may not yet have been developed as a qualification giving access to the labor market.”

The estimated share of second-cycle graduates who go on to studies in the third cycle is in most countries either in the interval of 5-10 percent or 10-15 percent. In Austria and France, more than 30 percent of second-cycle degree holders reportedly go on to study at the doctoral level.  Ten countries report that there are also possibilities for holders of first-cycle degrees to enter third-cycle programs.

In general, attainment levels are higher in younger age groups. The Bologna median value for the 25-34 age group is 33.2 percent, while it is 26.5 percent for the 35-44 year olds and 21.5 percent for the 45-64 age group. This shows that an increasing percentage of the population is getting a higher education degree.

Completion rates – the percentage of students who enter and complete their studies – have been an area of concern over the last decade for European higher education policymakers, as it reflects on the efficiency of the system and exposes waste (in an era of austerity) where completion rates are low.

Both the net entry rate and the net graduation rates have, as a European average, increased since 2001, meaning more students entering the system and more graduating. However, the entry rate has increased at a quicker rate than the graduation rate, which has actually led to a drop in the completion rate. Between 2003/04 and 2008/09 the net entry rate (percentage of students of college age entering higher education) increased from 47 percent to 58 percent and the net graduation rate from 31 percent to 36 percent. As a result, the gap between the median entry rate and the median graduation rate at the university level has increased from 16 percentage points to 22 percentage points, suggestive of a higher drop out rate even while graduation rates have increased.


The notion of ‘employability’ has been problematic for policymakers to track due to a lack of indicators that can reliably show whether the situation is improving or worsening. Instead, data usually reflect the labor market situation for higher education graduates in relation to people with lower educational attainment levels.

The data suggest that obtaining a tertiary qualification improves the employment prospects of young people in most countries. Similarly, in all countries, people with high educational attainment find their first job faster than the group of people with only secondary education. However, there are differences among tertiary education graduates, and those who graduated within the last three years can face difficulties entering the labor market. Indeed, in half of the EHEA countries, the unemployment rate of recent graduates is higher than 10 percent, which is more than three times the median rate for young people three or more years after graduation.

Lifelong Learning

The promotion of ‘lifelong learning’ is another one of the central tenets of the Bologna Process; however, there appears to be a paucity of information among member states as to progress being made. So much so that many states have yet to offer a formal definition of the term in their steering documents. The Progress Report states that, “in the absence of an exhaustive understanding of the concept, the provision most strongly associated with lifelong learning includes either non-formal courses offered by higher education institutions alongside their formal degree programs, or degree programs provided under various arrangements different from traditional full-time schemes.”

At the various ministerial meetings over the years, higher education ministers have highlighted areas that contribute to building the culture of lifelong learning in the EHEA. They have underlined the need to enhance the development of flexible learning pathways, to create opportunities for the recognition of prior learning, to establish national qualifications frameworks and to build closer cooperation between higher education institutions and various external partners, including employers.

“Despite conceptual differences in understanding lifelong learning, in most EHEA countries lifelong learning has already become a recognized mission of all higher education institutions,” the Bologna Progress Report states, while also noting that implementation of that mission varies greatly from institution to institution.

With regards to the recognition of prior learning, the results show that a large proportion of EHEA countries are situated at the two extremities of the spectrum: either they already have a well-established system of recognition of prior learning or they have not yet started their activities in this field. “A relatively small number of countries are situated at intermediary stages, which could indicate that despite the policy attention accorded to the theme, only very little developments are taking place across the EHEA.”


In 2009, education ministers gave a boost to mobility efforts by stating that: “mobility shall be the hallmark of the European Higher Education Area,” while also making a commitment that “by 2020, at least 20 percent of those graduating in the EHEA should have had a study or training period abroad [involving completion of at least 15 ECTS credits].” These targets were clarified [26] in the 2012 meeting of ministers in Bucharest.

Currently available data, focusing mainly on degree mobility, show that a majority of countries have an inbound and outbound mobility rate within the EHEA of less than 10 percent, with more than half under 5 percent. Apart from Cyprus and Liechtenstein, with outward degree mobility rates of more than 50 percent, Iceland, Ireland, Slovakia and Malta have the highest values (10-14 percent). The weighted average in academic year 2008/09 was slightly below 2 percent.

When academic mobility to countries outside the EHEA is considered, the rate for the majority of countries is less than 1 percent. However, as these figures are related only to full degree mobility, statistical information on credit mobility has to be added and taken into consideration when assessing progress towards the 20 percent benchmark

Eurostat data show that the average number of students studying in the EHEA coming from any foreign country (inside or outside the EHEA) is slightly less than 4 percent of the total student body. Austria with 17 percent and Switzerland with 14 percent have the highest incoming mobility rates in the EHEA. All other countries show levels below 10 percent out of which all but three (Czech Republic, United Kingdom and Cyprus) are below 5 percent. More than half of all incoming students from inside the EHEA choose the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Austria as their study destination.

While economic disparities between countries, a major reason for mobility imbalances, cannot be easily addressed by Bologna, obstacles related to administration and legal frameworks, and in particular to the recognition of study periods abroad, are still commonly reported as barriers to mobility.

A significant bright spot with regards to mobility is in the dramatic expansion of joint degree programs since the inception of Bologna. These programs offer a clear structure in which mobility periods are more easily integrated and recognized. However, the report notes that, “while there are now many joint programs, there are still few joint degrees, as legislative and administrative obstacles remain.” Additionally, only a small percentage of students participate in such programs.

The reporting also reveals that mobility flows typically follow East-West patterns both in European and global terms. In the EHEA, South and Eastern Europe tend to have more outward students and North and Western European countries more incoming students.


The process of defining and agreeing upon common Action Lines and Tools for the regionalization of higher education across Europe had essentially been completed by the time of the official launch of the European Higher Education Area in 2010. However, while the development of the instruments required to bring about convergence have largely been completed, and use of these instruments continues to grow and develop, implementation is not always systematic and a number of significant hurdles remain.

For Bologna to be successful, these Tools need to be defined against systems that define the delivery of higher education against a learning-outcomes approach, focusing on what students are expected to know, understand and be able to do upon graduation. For most countries, this represents a significant contrast to the dominant and more traditional input-oriented approach (delivery of defined content) to curriculum development.

Analyses of the various Bologna Action Lines suggest that the move towards a learning-outcomes approach is, in many countries, taking time to become firmly established. Implementation is dependent upon buy-in from institutions and faculty, and can therefore be considered a mainly bottom-up process that will take time to achieve, even while necessary legislative changes have or are in the process of being made.

The 2012 Bologna Progress Report also found significant and continuing problems related to the recognition of qualifications. Again, rectifying this situation is very much a bottom-up undertaking with the onus on encouraging institutions to accept the legal frameworks for recognition, as defined and agreed on by (nearly) all Bologna countries under the Lisbon Recognition Convention [27].  Indeed, in 30 signatory countries it is higher education institutions that take decisions on recognition of foreign qualifications for the purpose of further studies, and the Progress Report states that, “staff within the institutions who are actually taking these decisions may not always have sufficient knowledge of the overarching legal framework, and in some cases insufficient experience in assessing foreign qualifications or credits. Thus, ensuring that the principles of the Lisbon Recognition Convention are properly implemented in institutional practice remains a significant challenge.”

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