In the 2007 Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings, 57 of the top 200 universities were in the US. But significantly, 85 were in countries signed up to the Bologna Process, which involves the creation by 2010 of a European Higher Education Area (although there is some debate over whether the deadline will be met). The EHEA's 4,000 institutions and 16 million students make it similar in size and scope to the US system and will give it a major competitive advantage in the fight for foreign students.
As Europe gears up for this huge milestone, America has awoken to the challenge. And with the realisation that Latin America, North Africa and Australia have imitated parts of the process, that threat suddenly becomes more real. "The core features of the Bologna Process have sufficient momentum to become the dominant global higher education model within the next two decades. We had better listen up," warned a recent report from the US Institute for Higher Education Policy.
But if there has been the usual hint of superiority in the American position (perhaps unsurprising when one notes that its universities also dominate the elite corps that makes up the top 20 global institutions), there has been a sense of detachment in the UK. While most countries have had to carry out a radical overhaul of their systems, introducing three-year degrees and new types of masters, the UK has been required to do very little, being already overwhelmingly Bologna-compliant.
Competitors are keen to seize on this lack of action to demonstrate that the UK is less committed than its European neighbours and "aloof" from the process. Although grossly unfair, such an impression could become a problem as Bologna becomes better understood globally. If it becomes an accepted premium brand in higher education, the UK could become less competitive as a result of its perceived unwillingness to embrace change. This will be exacerbated if European students who have previously travelled to study in the UK stay at home in their Bologna-boosted institutions.
Harmonisation from the rest of Europe brings other problems, too. One of the main reasons that the UK has been so successful in recruiting international students has been its language. But increasingly, other European countries are introducing degrees taught in English, reducing the attractiveness of the UK to foreign students.
Similarly, even though they are officially Bologna-compliant, our one-year UK masters qualifications could be put at risk by the process. They are now coming to be seen as "minimalist" in comparison with the two-year masters offered by most European universities as a matter of course. UK undergraduate programmes are also being perceived as study-light, requiring far less effort than their equivalents on the Continent. And Sir Roderick Floud, dean of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London and a former vice-president of the European Universities Association, points out that the British Government has not helped in this matter "by bringing in foundation degrees and trying to shorten degree courses".
A UK degree is perceived as a premium product. But for international students it also comes at a premium price, second only to that of a degree from a private US institution. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, UK universities receive, on average, 8 per cent of their total income from international students.
As demographics reduces the number of students available in Europe, competition for those from Asia and elsewhere will intensify, and any hint that a degree from the UK is not as prestigious as one from its Bolognese cousins would cost our universities very dear.