Australian universities could lose tens of thousands of fee-paying foreign students to Europe unless they adapt to the Bologna Process, Julie Bishop, the federal Education Minister, warned last week.
Speaking at an international forum on higher education in Brisbane, she warned of the potential impact of Europe's plans to make it easier for students to gain entry to higher degrees and employment across all member states.
If Australia did not match these developments, a significant number of the 32,000 Europeans enrolled at Australian institutions could find other destinations more attractive, she said.
"Similarly, should Asian countries choose to align with Bologna, Europe may become a more attractive destination for students," Ms Bishop added.
The challenge for Australia was to improve the compatibility of its frameworks with international benchmarks, while retaining a higher education sector that meets domestic and international quality expectations.
The discussion paper, prepared by Ms Bishop's department, says compatibility with Bologna would align key features of the Australian university system with those of 45 European countries. This would assist student movement and boost other types of engagement between Australian and European institutions.
"Although students and academics move between universities and Australian qualifications are recognised in Europe, impediments resulting from differences in systems still exist," the paper states. It notes that different degree structures and the absence of effective credit transfer can make it difficult for students to study in another country.
"The adoption of effective credit transfer systems and a diploma supplement will be as valuable to Australian students seeking to study in Europe as it will be for European and other students seeking to study in Australia," the paper says.
Likewise, ensuring compatibility of quality assurance systems with those prescribed by Bologna would increase European confidence in Australian qualifications. With regard to European competition, the paper states, foreign students are likely to be attracted by the increasing use of English at postgraduate level, along with potential access to the vast European labour market and competitive tuition fees.
For better compatibility with Europe, Australia would at minimum need to introduce a three-cycle structure with bachelor, masters and doctorate degrees. A credit system compatible with the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System and an accreditation-quality assurance framework that met Bologna criteria would also be necessary.