The idea of universally recognised course credits and joint degrees across Europe is on its way to becoming reality. Harriet Swain reports
Funky guides designed to help students choose from the UK's 100 or so universities the one most suited to them intellectually, geographically and dipsomaniacally could be about to get a lot more complicated.
In just under eight years' time, if the European vision is realised, students will be mixing and matching degree programmes from the thousands across Europe. The vision, conceived in the Bologna declaration, signed by 29 European countries in June 1999, is of a fluid, homogeneous higher education area in which students can move easily between courses offered by institutions in different countries, confident that quality will be consistent, accumulate credits along the way, and offer prospective employers an irresistible and easily understood package of qualifications.
Considering that the UK by itself seems to be having trouble with the idea of a harmonious higher education system, the prospects of achieving it across Europe may look far-fetched. But it is not as utopian as it seems. Already, hundreds of students spend part of their degree in two or more European countries - not only through the Erasmus programme, which has been promoting student and staff exchanges since 1987 and which celebrates its millionth student this academic year - but also through an increasing number of joint degree programmes.
A survey by the European University Association, published this month, found that joint degrees are now offered by more than 26 European education systems, most commonly in economics, business and engineering and at masters level. Today the EUA will launch a pilot project to find out more about what makes a joint masters programme successful, spurred on by the European Commission's desire to create a European equivalent of the American Fulbright scheme.
"There are a number of things they have not thought through in developing the proposal and that we want to draw attention to," says David Crosier, programme manager at the EUA. The pilot project will consider issues including quality assurance, recognition of awards, admissions criteria and support for students in terms of language training and grants.
The legal aspects of joint degrees create an immediate problem. Few countries have legislated specifically for joint degrees with foreign institutions, and in some countries regulations concerned with awarding degrees make joint awards impossible. This contributes to the fact that recognition of joint degrees is often poor. A clear definition of what makes a joint degree - as opposed to a national degree that involves study in another country - is also lacking. And quality is a running concern.
Certain problems particularly affect British universities. "We anticipate tension between British universities, which will be trying to guard their one-year programmes, and the European universities, which see masters degrees as at least one-and-a-half and usually two-year programmes," Crosier says. He suggests that finance will be another important British issue because UK institutions charge higher fees than most European institutions, which could cause problems in joint arrangements. These masters programmes are already less lucrative than those aimed at higher fee-paying students outside Europe, although one of the aims of the Bologna process is to make European higher education more attractive to overseas students. The opportunity to spend time in different European institutions may also eventually prove a draw.
Finance is another issue for British students. Bernard Leach, head of the department of sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University, which runs a joint masters programme with institutions in Finland, Belgium and the Netherlands, says the programme is much cheaper for non-British students, who pay lower fees and may even receive a grant. This means that there are fewer applications from the UK; many students would actually be better off registering for the masters in one of the partner institutions.
The Bologna process has been hard to avoid for higher education institutions on the Continent, many of whom have had to introduce substantial reforms in order to comply with the two-tier bachelor and masters degrees system. Britain, which already operates such a system, has not had to do that much - yet. But John Riley, director of UK Erasmus, says this could change as arrangements for comparing degree programmes become better established.
Central to the Bologna vision is the idea of a common credit system, ensuring that qualifications achieved in one country are recognised in another by both academic institutions and employers. The European Credit Transfer System and with the Diploma Supplement, which gives transcripts of marks and more course details, are fast becoming the preferred methods for achieving this, although there is not yet general agreement on exactly how they should work. Under the present ECTS system, course units are allocated on the principle of 60 credits for a normal academic year's study. A masters degree would normally require completion of 300 ECTS credits, at least 60 of them at masters level. But in Britain most masters degrees take four rather than five years.
"As credits become directly comparable, it will become clear to employers that you can get a first and second-level degree with fewer credits in the UK than elsewhere in Europe," Riley says. Furthermore, the amount of study hours expected of students in this country - especially classroom hours - is less than in most other European countries. "It will look as though they come out with a qualification that is comparable but on the basis of a lesser workload and with less credit," he says.
Perhaps for this reason, Universities UK is strongly in favour of credit transfer and accumulation systems measuring outcomes, in terms of "the volume of learning achieved rather than input of time served". Roderick Floud, president of UUK, says: "If you are talking about part-time education and lifelong learning, which is perhaps more a feature of the British system than that in some other European countries, then time served is not a good indicator."
He says Britain needs to become more involved in the Bologna process than it has been so far. "There are major implications for Britain in terms of this issue of mutual recognition of qualifications, and it is in Britain's interest to make sure that the system is harmonised in ways we believe are sensitive to our interests."
Credit systems will be the focus of the EUA's second annual conference in October, which hopes to feed into discussions at next year's meeting of European Union ministers in Berlin. Heather Dale, assistant registrar at Aberdeen University, one of the case studies of a successful ECTS scheme to be presented at the conference, says it has made working with EU students far easier.
Dale says: "Before, what we had to do was take their transcript and work out what stage they were at by speaking to people who taught them. It would take a lot of time and effort. ECTS has not changed the type of students we get but it makes it much easier." She believes it could be used far more widely.
Others who have embraced European credit systems and joint degrees are equally enthusiastic. "Having European students on our degree is a fantastic asset," Leach says. "It is useful not just for them but for the wider student body."
Riley is also full of admiration for the new breed of Euro-student. "I feel that if a student can perform to the required level in another language and under another system, it proves that they have what it takes."