As Britain's election focus turned to Europe, education ministers from the European Union and beyond last weekend nudged the Bologna process - shorthand for convergence of the Continent's higher education systems - a little further towards its self-imposed deadline of 2010. But there is little in the Bologna process for Eurosceptics to fear. The United Kingdom is being asked to give little or nothing away. There is no centrally imposed agenda, no surrender of national control over degree structures, no prescribed formula for quality assurance. Academic content is not at issue.
For the UK, the key element is Bologna's recognition that the three-year first degree - the English model - is a cost-effective goal for the "inefficient" university systems of the Continent. Britain's efforts towards a coherent framework for postgraduate degrees are also acknowledged to be a model. Bologna's value lies in its consciousness-raising. Flurries of activity across the EU and beyond have either been driven by Bologna or framed by awareness of its objectives. Perhaps because the process carries minimal risk for the UK, only limited attention is being paid there.
Perhaps some of this would have happened without Bologna, but the shape and timing of reforms has been influenced by the targets set by the ministers of the 29 countries represented in northern Italy in June 1999. Piecemeal reform would not have brought the steady accretion of non-EU states, particularly those from the Baltic region, Scandinavia and the former communist states. The borders of the so-called European space for higher education widened this week with the addition of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, and Turkey.
To many in British higher education, the objectives and the pace may appear unambitious and there will be some relief at rejection of the idea of a single quality assurance system to match all conditions and needs. But the primacy of English in globalisation gives the UK a strong advantage in developing joint degrees with its European partners.