The long and the short of it

Britain's one-year masters is proving a sticking point in the Bologna Process, but the equivalence issue is raising difficult questions about length of study for other degrees, too. Hannah Fearn reports

October 2, 2008

Whether it was the quality of the coffee or the intimacy of the conversation we cannot know, but the meeting was a resounding success.

The education ministers of the UK, Germany and Italy accepted the invitation of their French counterpart to form a common higher education system. The debate on the future of European higher education had been initiated by France as part of the Sorbonne's 800th anniversary celebrations.

However buoyant the four ministers felt when they emerged from that discussion almost a decade ago, they must scarcely recognise the Bologna Process as it exists today - a complex procedure aimed at harmonising university education across Europe born directly of that first meeting.

The Bologna Declaration was drawn up just one year later, with relatively modest proposals for 29 countries, and signed in the Italian city that is home to what is regarded as the western world's first university.

The Bologna Process has ballooned to include 45 countries, meaning institutions from Dublin to Vladivostok are reshaping their courses to comply.

"I just didn't think it would snowball at that pace," explains Tessa Blackstone, the former higher education minister who put pen to paper for the UK Government. "But what it showed was the desire for reform of higher education by the governments of many European countries, the desire to have a pan-European system and the strong belief that, if we didn't, we would probably lose out in the global competition."

Professor Blackstone, now vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich, adds: "If Europe was going to play its part and take a fair share of this, it needed to have a comprehensible and simple system."

The process will create the European Higher Education Area, within which degrees are equivalent and students and academics can transfer easily between universities.

The aim is that, in time, Europe will become more attractive to overseas students who hitherto have chosen to study in Australia or America. By 2010, European universities should offer a three-cycle degree system to doctorate level - bachelors, masters, PhD. Bachelors degrees should entail three years of study, and a masters degree a minimum of one year.

The overarching ambitions may be simple enough, but the political and academic wranglings that have followed are not, with countries such as Italy being forced to undertake a radical overhaul, slimming down five-year undergraduate degrees. With little structural work to do, the UK is letting the other signatories get on with aligning their higher education systems to Bologna.

Paul Temple, a senior lecturer in higher education management at the Institute of Education, University of London, says: "Clearly, for some European countries the Bologna Process is a much bigger deal. It is being used by governments to pester universities to do things the governments have wanted them to do for years."

Enthusiasm for the process was partly because it was perceived as the way "proper European countries" organised their higher education systems.

But the UK is being seen as deliberately taking a backseat, ambivalent towards European harmonisation.

"I think there is a risk that those of us in the UK are looking at it in a bit of a parochial way," Temple says. "We think that Bologna is applying our system to the rest of Europe and therefore we don't need to do much about it."

This perceived lack of action could damage the reputation of UK universities, as a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) illustrated this year. "This lack of Bologna-inspired reform has been perceived in some quarters as a spirit of aloofness," it says.

Academics in the UK have noted how little the issue is discussed in our universities. "Bologna is almost never mentioned," says Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent. "The only people who ever talk about Bologna are people who are academic managers at a very high level. Even they almost talk about it in passing; (they are) talking the talk rather than having really seriously thought about it."

At the heart of the debate is the British one-year masters degree. The accord does not require a two-year masters degree, but most European universities offer a qualification of this type as standard. Across continental Europe, the masters is a research-intensive course aimed at preparing students for a PhD and a career in academia. In the UK, it performs a quite different function - offering the high-level professional skills required by the workplace.

As such, the one-year masters offered by UK universities could be seen as minimalist, even lazy. According to the Hepi report: "If the Bologna brand were to become well established, and if the UK was seen not to be 'Bologna-compliant' - and there are undoubtedly a number of our competitors who would like to create that impression - then that could damage the UK's attractiveness to international students. That is one reason why perceptions of aloofness from the Bologna Process, however unfair, could damage UK universities in the long term."

The problem remains that Bologna was set up to ensure equivalence across Europe and the masters is a clear sticking point. The Norwegian Council of Universities has already publicly stated that it does not consider a one-year masters to be suitable preparation for a PhD.

Any misunderstanding of what a masters degree aims to do could threaten the status of UK universities, and particularly employer-facing institutions such as business schools.

Steve Haberman, deputy dean of Cass Business School at City University in London, says most masters courses in business schools are concerned with teaching high-level skills in preparation for work, not for taking PhDs.

He worries that ambivalence, or even arrogance, towards Bologna among academics could have a damaging effect on the competitiveness of the sector. "The reality is that we can learn from what's going on in Europe," he says.

Hepi tells universities that the challenge for the UK system is to identify "objective and meaningful measures" that will help students to understand what they will have achieved by the end of a masters course.

In short, Europe must understand what our masters degrees are all about. Changes enforced by Bologna, such as the introduction of a student "supplement" (a publication given to each student that outlines their grades and the skills they have demonstrated), could help the UK to do this.

For some disciplines, however, the problem is more complex. The undergraduate engineering degree in the UK is a four-year MEng, leading to a masters qualification.

This may be more difficult for European counterparts to understand. As Bologna gathers pace, recruitment to the MEng degree could struggle as students consider it to offer only the bare minimum when compared with other Bologna-compliant institutions.

"On the face of it, it should just about scrape through as a Bologna second-cycle degree," says Clive Neal-Sturgis, executive secretary of the Engineering Professors' Council. He nevertheless anticipates major problems for UK engineers as a result of the Bologna Process.

"Students from such programmes might find themselves in difficulty moving on to PhDs in other countries," he explains. "The problem from my perspective is that often the mutterings express reality. There could possibly be a lack of confidence in the UK MEng in terms of its international equivalence."

International equivalence could eventually come down to the number of "effort hours" a student must work in order to achieve the same degree across different countries. The European credit-transfer system will require students to work towards a full degree by building up a series of credits (most universities already use this system), and will enable the transfer of students between institutions.

But are these credits really equal? An engineering student in the UK will need to put in 4,800 effort hours to achieve a masters by following a four-year undergraduate MEng degree course. To achieve a comparable qualification in Germany, a student must work for a minimum of 8,000 hours.

"Talking to my European colleagues, they really are quite mystified how we in the UK can take A-level students and get them up to the masters level in 4,800 effort hours, when they start off with better students and give them 8,000 effort hours," Neal-Sturgis says.

This could, in time, force a radical overhaul of the qualification. Imperial College London is already understood to be considering extending its MEng to five years. "No one in the UK wants to be seen as minimalist. We want to be seen as awarding degrees which are head-on competitors to those in France and Germany."

When Blackstone signed up to Bologna in 1999, she anticipated the potential problem. Her only concern at the time, she admits, was that she did not want the UK to be forced into offering longer masters degrees. She believed that, if the UK stood its ground and made it clear what the one-year course offered, European colleagues would understand and respect the qualification. "I think it would be a disaster to move to a two-year masters system," Blackstone says. "The cost would be astronomical and it would greatly reduce the number of students who would feel able to take a masters. It's absolutely unnecessary. We know that people with a reasonably high-quality undergraduate degree can do what needs to be done to get a masters in one year."

The equivalence issue, most keenly illustrated by the one-year masters stumbling block, also filters down to bachelor degrees.

A 2007 survey by Hepi found that contact time and study required at undergraduate level in the UK is also far below the European average. Undergraduates at English universities receive a total of 14 hours of scheduled tuition each week, and put in 26 hours a week in total.

This is about seven hours less than the European average. As many as 34 per cent of English undergraduates put in what are, in effect, part-time hours of 20 hours a week or fewer, and many of these still obtain top-class degrees.

Meanwhile, in the UK, degrees are ever shrinking. "The British Government has not helped by the introduction of foundation degrees and trying to shorten degree courses," says Sir Roderick Floud, dean of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. "To the rest of Europe, three years seems a very short time indeed."

The most dramatic changes in Europe are happening in countries such as the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany and Italy, which previously offered five-year undergraduate degrees.

Slimming down to three years has been a difficult process. Those universities that have tried simply slicing the courses in half, the first three years for a bachelors degree and the final two as a masters, have had limited success. Entire curricula have been rewritten.

Floud says this redrafting of syllabuses has been "one of the great benefits" of the Bologna Process. "It has forced everybody to think about what it is that they're teaching and how to teach it. You had to start from first principles and think about what an undergraduate and masters degree in a particular subject should consist of."

In the Netherlands, universities have had to drop their traditional doctorandus, an exam that allowed students to proceed to PhD level, and introduce a two-cycle structure for the first time.

Sijbolt Noorda, president of the Association of Dutch Research Universities, says this has led to a growing variety of bachelors programmes, and specific research masters degrees are being developed for the first time. Since 2002, 99 per cent of degrees in the Netherlands have been Bologna-compliant.

But although such substantial changes may be welcome in the academic community, they are causing problems outside. It was a stipulation of the Bologna Declaration that bachelors degrees "must have relevance to the labour market".

According to Frank McMahon's recent paper, "The impact of the Bologna Process on the design of higher education programmes in Europe", "Europe now seeks to have a competitive advantage over other advanced economies by having a better alignment between the output of university graduates and the needs of the economy."

This is an admirable aspiration, but European employers are yet to understand fully the new kind of graduates their universities are producing. They may be disappointed with what they see. Rewriting degree programmes has its cost. "Universities accustomed to providing education over a five-year duration will take some time to adjust to the new regime of three-year degrees. So, initially at least, graduates of three-year programmes will not match the standards of their predecessors," McMahon says.

In fact, he says, the sweeping changes Bologna has provoked could prompt a "lowest common denominator" in the qualifications required to enter many graduate professions. "The standardisation of European degrees may well be at the expense of excellence," McMahon concludes.

What is most worrying for many European universities is the potential threat to academic freedom. Can homogenisation of higher education ever be a positive goal for academics? While European higher education as a whole may become more competitive on the world stage, it is feared that Bologna could also lead universities to lose their independence and individuality.

Chris Lorenz, professor of philosophy and methodology of history at the Free University of Amsterdam, has written widely about his belief that Bologna is a "McDonaldisation" of higher education.

"We should not be surprised to see the existing universities in Europe being transformed into entrepreneurial 'McUniversities'," he says. "What used to be a legal right of citizens - higher education - is being transformed into a marketable commodity without any political debate at the national level."

Others share his fears. While there are undoubtedly benefits to homogenisation, there are also disturbing drawbacks.

"It's one thing to encourage collaboration and co-operation and to encourage the free movement of students between different nations and different universities," says Furedi. "It's another thing to accept the fact that we speak from the same script - we have different national traditions of what academic life is."

These worries were recognised by the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee in its 2006-07 report on Bologna. It warned the Government that it must "seek to uphold the autonomy and flexibility of institutions".

"We recommend that the Government be increasingly vigilant in guarding against a move towards bureaucratic, top-down detailed agreements," it states.

Compared with their counterparts, UK universities seem well prepared for the pace and scale of change. While other countries are introducing new degrees, assessing them for Bologna compliance and against their international competitors, the UK's obsession with the single issue of the masters degree is a sign of its competence.

"The UK has had it easy in the Bologna Process," says Rick Trainor, president of Universities UK and a European Universities Association council member. "In a sense we can take comfort from the fact that so much of the discussion in the UK has been about the masters degree. It shows how well suited the UK system is."

Although one third of international students in the UK come from Bologna-participating countries, UK universities need not worry about losing European students to their home countries.

The UK's historic reputation is boosted by such advantages as high degree-completion rates. "We need to keep enhancing our reputation abroad, but I think we should be able to retain these advantages," Trainor says.

With just two years to go until the 2010 target, there is division over whether the deadline to create the European Higher Education Area will be met, with each of the 45 states operating broadly within the parameters laid down by ministers.

The boundaries of Bologna have moved so far in the decade since the first declaration was drawn up that it is difficult to pick a single yardstick by which to measure progress.

The Bologna Declaration, for all its convoluted requirements, has one overarching goal - to make Europe the most competitive continent in higher education. In this, it is doing its job. In July 2007, Michael Gaebel of the European Universities Association said educators in Asia, Africa, Australia, the US and Latin America were all looking closely at the Bologna Process as a potential model for their own higher education systems.

Bologna has prompted many European universities to introduce degrees taught in English, making them more attractive to Chinese, Japanese and Indian students who are much more likely to speak English than the mother tongue of a European university.

Floud says tapping into the US market was always a key motivator of Bologna. "That was certainly one of the original objectives, although it was never stated," he says. "It would stem, if not stop, the brain drain to the US, particularly at postgraduate level."

The tactic is working. A report from the Institute of Higher Education Policy in Washington this year warned that the Bologna Process had "sufficient momentum to become the global model of higher education within two decades". It called on US universities to begin a similar process to draw together the country's vast higher education sector.

Meanwhile there is some doubt that the process will be completed by 2010, with some describing that date as a "mirage". With the range of new partners in the process, 2020 has been cited as a more likely year for success. But for Floud, former vice-president of the European Universities Association, the achievements so far show a triumph of will across Europe.

"I don't think one can guarantee that by 2010 some provincial Russian university will have fully adopted the system, but the progress has been amazing and I think that one can say that mostly it will be adopted by 2010," he says. "I remember coming back from the Bologna conference and saying it's a nice aspiration but it will never happen. It actually has happened."

THE DECLARATION

Signed 19 June 1999

"The vitality and efficiency of any civilisation can be measured by the appeal that its culture has for other countries. We need to ensure that the European higher education system acquires a worldwide degree of attraction equal to our extraordinary cultural and scientific traditions."

The declaration commits universities to:

- Adoption of a system of easily comparable degrees in order to promote European citizens' employability and the international competitiveness of the European higher education system;

- Adoption of a system essentially based on two main cycles, undergraduate and graduate. Access to the second cycle requires successful completion of the first-cycle studies, lasting a minimum of three years;

- Establishment of a system of credits as a proper means of promoting the most widespread student mobility;

- Promotion of mobility for academics.

THE ROAD TO BOLOGNA

1998: Paris

France, Germany, Italy and the UK agree to harmonise their higher education systems.

1999: Bologna

Declaration signed, with 29 countries agreeing to establish the European Higher Education Area by 2010.

2000: Lisbon

A pledge to promote the knowledge economy to make Europe the most competitive economy in the world is signed. This is later adopted into the ideals of Bologna.

2001: Prague

Croatia, Cyprus and Turkey are welcomed into the fold.

2003: Berlin

Eight more countries apply for membership, including Russia. Ministers set priorities for action over the next two years: quality assurance, degree structure and the student "supplement".

2005: Bergen

All countries commit to putting national frameworks of qualifications (credit systems) in place by 2010, together with a European framework. At the time only Denmark, Ireland and the UK have these in place.

2007: London

By the time the UK hosts the summit, there are 46 participating countries.

The next summit will take place in Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, in April 2009.

THE VIEW FROM EUROPE - SPAIN

"Spain started the Bologna process relatively late, something that now could be an advantage because they are learning from the mistakes of other countries," explains Jose-Gines Mora.

Mora is director for the Centre for the Study of Higher Education Management at the Valencia University of Technology, and also a visiting professor for the Institute of Education at the University of London. He therefore has a unique perspective on the progress and pitfalls of Bologna.

"The most important challenge is not to reorganise the structure, because this was more or less implicit in the old system, but changing the traditional teaching and learning model - focused on theoretical knowledge - in a new model oriented to general competencies.

"The main obstacle for Spain is the internal structure of universities where academics are still civil servants and where the governance model is extremely inefficient. It is difficult to implement reforms with these two elements," he says.

"But British universities seem to be, to some extent, out of the process. In my opinion this is a mistake caused by the wrong idea among academics in the UK but, also in most countries, that the Bologna Process is just to split the long study-programmes into two shorter programmes, and this is (already in place) in the UK.

"The Bologna Process is a deep, collective reflection on the present and future of higher education in the knowledge and global society, and it tries to adapt higher education to the new needs.

"The UK should not be out of this process for two reasons. Firstly, because British universities also need to be adapted to the new context. Secondly, because they are missing the opportunity of leading this process of reflection."

THE VIEW FROM EUROPE - IRELAND

"We are still at an early stage in these developments," says Ned Costello, chief executive of the Irish Universities Association.

"There are clear benefits for Ireland from the Bologna process.

"In making Europe a more visible and attractive destination for international students, Ireland can gain a great deal. Now that other European countries have moved to a bachelor/master structure, Irish qualifications are better understood and accepted across Europe for further study and employment. And vice versa, qualifications held by European graduates coming to Ireland are better understood, with advantages for employers, universities and the general Irish economy.

"It can be expected that research centres across Europe will also benefit down the line in terms of their access to broader pools of potential young researchers, and greater inter-institutional collaboration.

"The structural alignment that is taking place in higher education across Europe will not result in homogeneity either of concept or of content.

"This is already evident from the huge diversity of new bachelors and masters-level programmes available across the continent.

"The process could help Irish universities boost their profile politically and secure funding.

"The European focus on Bologna and its links with the Lisbon Agenda (see timeline) have highlighted the need in Ireland for further investment in higher education."

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