With the aims of the Bologna Process within reach, ministers must now look beyond 2010, says Kristin Clemet
Ministers from all over Europe will gather in Bergen, Norway, this week to discuss the direction of the Bologna Process. My expectations are high.
Bologna is an enormously important form of European co-operation, bringing together 45 countries with the aim of setting up a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) by 2010. Ministerial meetings take place every second year and have already been held in Bologna, Prague and Berlin.
So what will be the main points on the agenda in Bergen? The process will include almost all European countries, stretching as far east as Azerbaijan. A few of the Bologna member countries have a long way to go to achieve the goals we have set. We have to strengthen our efforts in what is called the social dimension of the process, to create equal opportunities for higher education and mobility for all students in all countries, regardless of their social and economic backgrounds.
Cross-border higher education is growing, but not all higher education is quality higher education. For some students, the study programme offered does not match the programme advertised. Norway has worked towards establishing international guidelines for cross-border higher education, both within the Bologna Process and through Unesco and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The result is a strengthening of the work on quality assurance in higher education, nationally and at European level. Mutually shared standards and guidelines for quality assurance have been developed and will be presented to, and hopefully approved by, the ministers in Bergen. Our aim is to increase and facilitate the mobility of students while ensuring the quality of institutions and study programmes.
While focusing on the EHEA, we must not forget the external dimension of the Bologna process. Aki Sawyerr, the secretary-general of the African Association of Universities, said in an interview that he was afraid that a one-way student flow, combined with restrictive immigration policies, might result in what he called an "intellectual Festung Bologna".
This is a concern we have to take seriously. It reflects an anxiety that Europe is neglecting its obligations towards the poorer parts of the world, an anxiety that Europe is turning its focus towards commercialisation of higher education. In Berlin, we stated quite clearly that "in international academic co-operation and exchanges, academic values should prevail". The EHEA has to be open and inclusive.
The Bologna Process, started in 1999, is halfway to its 2010 deadline. In Bergen we will take stock of our achievements so far. A detailed stocktaking has been carried out for three intermediate priority areas, a two-cycle degree system, quality assurance and the recognition of degrees and study periods.
The direction is a quite clear - progress in these three areas has been substantial. This is confirmed by students and higher education institutions. Changes are not just top-down; students can see the changes in study programmes. So our aim for 2010 should be within reach.
As 2010 draws nearer, it will be necessary to supplement the vision of the EHEA with a concrete description of what it should become after 2010. The Bologna Declaration does not provide answers. Consequently, I will invite my colleagues to start a discussion on this topic in Bergen. The question has to be raised whether the EHEA should be formalised. Will there be a need for a legal framework? Should the process be binding for member countries? We have to dare to raise the question of whether some sort of formal commitment from the participating countries may be necessary for the EHEA to become a reality. For the time being, the process includes a number of countries outside the European Union. Transferring the Bologna Process to the EU would not be a natural choice. But we have to look into the various scenarios for the EHEA in 2010 and beyond.
By 2010, as a result of Bologna, we should see a noticeable improvement in the quality of European higher education. We should have systems of quality assurance in place in all countries that protect students. Students and staff should also be able to move more freely between countries. Europe will emerge as more attractive for good students and staff seeking international experience.
All of this will make Europe stronger globally. I hope we continue focusing and working on these important gains long after we have left Bergen.
Kristin Clemet is Norwegian Minister of Education and Research.