Leader: Bologna means continental shift in UK thinking

April 6, 2007

British universities have long taken a simple view of the Bologna Agreement. For once, they think, continental Europe has realised the superiority of the British approach and has changed its ways to become more like us.

this simple picture contains some truth. First degrees in continental Europe have traditionally taken far longer to complete than in the UK. The two patterns are converging and are positioned nearer to the UK's starting point than, say, Germany's.

But matters are not quite so straightforward. For one thing, there is no single UK model. Scottish degrees tend to take longer than those awarded by English universities, partly because school-leavers there take a broader range of courses than the highly specialised A levels favoured by English schools. Pressure for less specialisation in English schools, and the stream of complaints from academics about the ill-prepared entrants they are required to teach, may yet translate into pressure for longer degree courses in the UK.

More importantly, it is possible that the Bologna reforms will create significant continental competition for UK universities. There are many reasons why the UK is a compelling destination for internationally mobile students. One is the English language, although this advantage is being eroded as universities in Asia and elsewhere are increasingly teaching in English. Another is that the UK has many of the world's best universities, as The Times Higher 's World University Rankings demonstrate. A third is that UK universities offer mobile students better value for money than equally good US universities, especially for those from the European Union who come to the UK for the cost of domestic fees. But the fact that students can get a degree in the UK in three years rather than five has offered a further competitive edge that is now being blunted.

The Bologna reforms involve far more change for continental European institutions than for those in the UK. Many will become more competitive than in the past by offering shorter courses and better credit transfer.

But the real significance of Bologna for universities in the UK and across the EU is that the -nation union has a population of over 450 million, and 18 non-EU states also form part of the Bologna Process. It would be better to regard this as a massive home market than as a place to seek foreign students. An increasing pool of European school-leavers and graduates look at the whole Continent in their search for the course and institution they want. So any British university has a potential home market far larger than the 300 million available to US universities.

European students do not pay the big fees that international students do, but they exist in huge numbers, they live nearby and they should be central to any university's planning.

But despite Bologna, there is no European university system on the horizon.

No European government is likely to abandon its own system for running and financing universities, and in particular for telling them what to teach.

While research is a global enterprise, teaching is not. The planned European Higher Education Area will be harder to deliver than the European Research Area, which involves only the comparatively painless task of improving researcher mobility across the EU. Making university teaching a truly European enterprise will remain problematic because of national differences in labour markets and economies.

But the biggest obstacle is that no national politician would cede control of their country's school system to Brussels. There will continue to be big variations in what school-leavers know before they become undergraduates.

European universities and the courses they teach will have to cope with these differences for many years to come.

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