America lacks the Bolognese recipe for true harmonisation

US warned it could lose its lead of the global pack if it doesn't learn from Europe, reports John Gill

August 14, 2008

It may have the most successful higher education system in the world, but the US is being urged to look to Europe to safeguard its position at the head of the global pack.

A report from the US Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) says the harmonisation of higher education in Europe through the Bologna Process "has sufficient momentum to become the dominant global model of higher education within two decades".

In a European higher education system that, with 4,000 institutions and 16 million students, is a similar size to that of America, the report says Bologna is "standing 800-year-old traditions on their heads" and is already being replicated in Latin America, Africa and Australia.

Making a direct plea to the American university sector, Clifford Adelman, the report's author, urges it to "learn something from beyond our own borders" from an initiative that is "extraordinarily relevant to the accountability challenges that face US higher education".

The Bologna Process aims to create a "European space of higher education" in which undergraduate education is easily comparable across the Continent.

Mr Adelman says it is succeeding in articulating what qualifications represent and what students must do to earn them, an area in which initiatives in the US have failed.

America's Hepi policy briefing, he says, "contends that none of the major pronouncements on accountability in US higher education that we have heard in the recent past... even begin to understand what accountability means".

While acknowledging that efforts have been made to address these issues in the past, the report says they have tended to offer a watered-down version of accountability, adding "none of it says what credentials represent or what students must do to earn them".

Whereas at European universities, Bologna ensures that the skills that will qualify students for particular degrees are specified, Mr Adelman contends that "these road signs are sorely lacking now in the US".

To emulate certain aspects of Bologna, the report calls for state-wide "qualification frameworks" that set out the "learning outcomes" of degrees and define what differentiates them from qualifications at levels above and below.

It adds: "Student success does not mean merely that you have been awarded a degree, but that you have learnt something substantial along the way and that the world knows what you have learnt, what skills you have mastered, and that you have the momentum to meet the rising knowledge content of the global economy... If your discipline, institution and system have established clear and discrete criteria for learning and thresholds of performance, that evidence, in itself, creates a powerful endorsement."

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