From where I sit - We're scholars, not politicians

November 3, 2011

The scene is a Bucharest ballroom, decorated in the bronze and purples of vanished empires. Sir Peter Scott, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, University of London, has been brightening it up.

His report at the Bologna Process Researchers' Conference aims to open up questions. Does the euro crisis mean that the tide is going out on the European Union project, or is the solution to wade in deeper? What are the options for the process and the emergent European Higher Education Area (EHEA)?

Scott's audience has been presenting papers for a research publication to be launched at the next Bologna ministerial conference, taking place here next April. We are 100 or so academics and doctoral students from the social sciences, economics and the law: we are linked by academic commonalities. Also present are policy experts from the European University Association, the lead stakeholder in the process.

Unexpectedly, Georg Winckler takes the stage. He is a former president of the University of Vienna and the EUA, and an effective university politician. The Bologna Process - aimed at harmonising higher education systems across Europe and enhancing student mobility -owes to him much of its synergy between education and research: he added the doctoral cycle to the initial Bologna agenda for national compatibilities in undergraduate and master's structures.

Now Winckler elaborates on Scott's self-styled "musing" that researchers at this conference should present ministers with a message, a declaration, or even a manifesto. Winckler calls for measures from the EU that chime with the interest groups.

Immediately, a founding figure of academic research in this area gets up to speak. This is Ulrich Teichler, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kassel in Germany. Teichler, an internationally admired scholar since the 1970s, has been a father figure to the current stars in European higher education research. He is not a man to mess with intellectually.

Don't oversell this research, which was produced under great time constraints, he says in his booming voice. He does not deign to use the word "message", let alone "manifesto".

I look at the supporting actors who have made possible this (in principle) very welcome research project. They include Daniel Funeriu, the Romanian minister of education; a senior official from the European Commission's research directorate; EUA senior staff; and the Bologna secretariat, which is currently based in Bucharest and is led by one of the impressive young cadres emerging from the European Students' Union.

They all want a political gesture.

We, the researchers, are the Greek chorus. Sorry: our voices are with Teichler.

The outcome will tell us much about the successes and failures of the Bologna Process.

That this conference was both imagined and approved, and will have a further life in print, could help translate into practice Bologna's ministerial rhetoric of respect for academic values and intellectual autonomy.

The initiative could make for links distinct from the operation of interest groups, in that they would produce creative disruption between scholarship, research and politics.

There is increasing evidence in research projects, journals and conferences that high-level and multidisciplinary research is taking place that is focused on the impact of Europe on higher education, and vice versa.

An attempt to dragoon researchers into making political statements would not only make a mockery of the Bologna principle of academic freedom; it would also waste a precious resource for a meaningful EHEA.

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