From where I sit - Filtering Bologna's muddy waters

April 19, 2012

When higher education ministers from 47 countries of the European continent meet in Bucharest on 26- April to pronounce on the next steps for the Bologna Process and the construction of the European Higher Education Area, will they be functioning as some sort of cabal? And, as some critics claim, promoting "an underhand revolution"?

The Bologna Process-as-undemocratic is back in the news. Times Higher Education reports my London School of Economics colleague Sacha Garben looking at the Bologna initiative as an academic lawyer, and concluding that it is undemocratic because it does not operate under the full process of European Union law. I, however, look at the Bologna Process as a political scientist. I have conventional political science concerns about the ideas behind a project and the institutional frame in which it operates.

My view is that democratic values would be better upheld if the distinctions were clearer as to the respects in which the EU and Bologna processes are separate.

Imagine the processes as two overlapping circles: a classic Venn diagram showing areas in common and areas that are distinct. The overlaps concern instruments. No problem. In my work I show a form of ping-pong operating to ensure that such processes as frameworks for recognition and quality assurance and the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) do work to common ends.

But are not the guiding ideas distinct? The EU priority is to use universities to support and strengthen the EU's growth and innovation strategy, whereas the Bologna Process emerged to develop higher education per se.

For a book that Bologna ministers will be given in their conference goody bag - and for which hopefully some university libraries will pay - Pavel Zgaga, of the University of Ljubljana, and I have reviewed the principles underpinning Bologna and EU higher education collaboration. A conclusion is that academic values in ministerial communiques are ambiguous. Politicians love to muddy the waters. They will do so again, if the leaks are correct. The priorities for the next three years may be worthy but will be social, such as requesting further help from the EU on loans for would-be master's students.

The ambiguity around academic values matters. We are seeing widening gaps between the values of university leadership and those of academics as higher education goes global and ever more commercial. A current and riveting case concerns the terms of the deal made by Yale University's governing body with the Singapore government to establish a liberal arts college, and the potential compromises with donors over freedom of research and speech (see the well-informed GlobalHigherEd blog by Kris Olds). Many would say that there are close analogies in UK universities, not least with the LSE over Libya and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.

Shouldn't academics from different disciplines play their part and rally round as analysts rather than advocates? They have accumulated evidence on such democratic concerns as winning and losing in the Bologna Process, and the nature of respect for academic values. I hope THE will give them space.

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