Harmonisation and discord in Europe

EU aims are laudable, says Malcolm Gillies, but the Bologna Process is no silver bullet

May 15, 2014

There’s a lot in a name. Folklore asserts that the shorter the name the more trustworthy the person. Hence US politicians such as Jeb Bush, Bob Dole, Rick Scott. Pity poor Barack Obama (five syllables). Our own “pollies” are a bit more long-winded: David Cameron (five), Nigel Farage (four), Ed Miliband (four), but all are easily sidelined by Nick Clegg (two), whose monosyllables are only enhanced by those elegantly abutting ck‑cl consonantal digraphs.

Clegg is unambiguously for Europe, and I trust him. He is one of our few politicians who could, and would, have said, “The forces of chauvinism, protectionism and xenophobia have been emboldened. And there is no doubt about it. The fight is now on for the future of our continent,” to quote from a recent speech.

It was Clegg’s mention of “our continent” that I admired, both in describing Europe as a continent and in thinking of it as ours. No distant across-the-Channel Europe in his mind. And he ably identified the escalating problem: the barricades going up across Europe, to protect “us” from the ubiquitous “them”, who supposedly threaten our jobs, erode our ancient customs and run off with our sons or daughters.

Citizens of newer EU states can feel like a second-class citizenry, especially when their master’s or doctoral degrees, to all intents and purposes, go unrecognised abroad

A most serious purpose of the European Union is, of course, not visa-free holidays, or that we can all work in Lapland, but to maintain the peace that eluded Europe in the first half of the past century. The current Ukrainian situation blew up, in part, because of a chronic dithering in EU commitment to eastern neighbours, and an American propensity to foster regime change without enough thought to what comes next.

One traditional EU answer to the protectionism, even isolationism, that lurks within us all has been mobility, whether in jobs, studies or long-term residence. By those millions of individual cross-border movements in search of something better, cheaper, sunnier, more exciting or just plain different, the continent is more likely to hang together. And increasing mobility has managed to keep most of Europe out of conflict for most of the past 70 years.

The Bologna Declaration, signed at the turn of the millennium, aimed to encourage “harmonisation of higher education architectures” across a broader Europe than just the EU, as part of European integration. One way it does that is by qualification recognition and credit transfer. In theory this leads to greater mobility: first in studies and then, for graduates, in jobs. Some countries, like the UK, needed to do little to fit into its three cycles of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral studies. Others, especially those in Eastern Europe emerging from four decades of Soviet domination, had to adapt much more.

I’ve recently spoken at a number of events in Romania and Hungary and there is a widespread view that, despite some valiant attempts, the Bologna Process is not working well. National curricula and professional accreditations are frequently still too “unharmonised”, and the nature and timing of assessments too uncoordinated, to foster the envisaged movement within degrees. While the EU’s Erasmus programme has now helped more than 2 million students to cross borders as part of their studies, this is a drop in the ocean of 800 million people living within the Bologna zone.

But it is what happens before and after degree studies that creates greater challenges to the European, or at least to the EU, goal of mobility. Very different standards and expectations of secondary education make it hard to build universally recognised higher education qualifications. At age 15, as the Programme for International Student Assessment tests show, you see radically different national levels of achievement, even across the EU nations.

Countries such as the Netherlands and Bulgaria are separated by years rather than months of achievement in maths, reading and science tests, and you have to suspect that the gap is not narrowed in the final few years of schooling. Cross-border credit transfer or qualification recognition becomes dubious if it is built upon such preceding differences.

Similarly, what happens after graduation can be dispiriting, with citizens of newer EU states feeling like a second-class citizenry, and especially when their master’s or doctoral degrees, to all intents and purposes, go unrecognised abroad. A recent article on the website FutureChallenges, “Go West: Romania, Education and the Mirage of Mobility”, claimed that “for many Romanians pursuing a degree abroad, the Mirage of the West stops at the gates of the university”.

Most pan-EU educational endeavours hang on a weak treaty promise to “encourage cooperation”. Indeed, Article 165 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2008) makes it clear that it looks to individual member states “for the content of teaching and the organisation of education systems and their cultural and linguistic diversity”. Back to Clegg: these 21st-century manifestations of protectionism, my recent audiences tell me, can turn educational mobility into little more than well-meaning tourism.

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