Beef over Bologna's 'elitist' origins

Critic calls for legal integration of 'undemocratic' process into EU policy. Matthew Reisz reports

March 29, 2012

Credit: Reuters
Grave threat? Some feel that Bologna opened higher education to the market

The fact that the Bologna Process was forged "at the birthday parties of elite universities" is a sign of its "original sin" and indicative of a notable "democratic deficit" underlying the initiative.

That is the view of Sacha Garben, a fellow in the law department at the London School of Economics, who put forward a major critique of Bologna at a workshop on higher education and Europe on 23 March.

Dr Garben was responding to the former education minister Baroness Blackstone, who told the event - Europe's Crisis, Higher Education's Chance: Reframing the Integration Issue in the Europe of Knowledge - about her role in bringing about the Bologna Declaration. She described how in early 1998 her French equivalent, Claude Allègre, had asked her for a meeting.

"In despair about the French higher education system, which he believed to be unreformable from within", he had proposed that the two of them, together with colleagues from Germany and Italy, should mark the 800th anniversary of the creation of the Sorbonne with "plans for greater integration of their HE systems on the Anglo-Saxon model".

Despite much protest from some European nations, Baroness Blackstone went on, the announcement led to the Bologna Declaration in 1999. She had lobbied successfully for it to be a European rather than a European Union initiative, "with the Commission playing a minor part", and it has now been signed by 47 countries, including accession states.

But Dr Garben said the way the Sorbonne and Bologna declarations had come about meant that they lacked democratic legitimacy.

Instead of going through the checks and balances of legislation and ratification, the Bologna Process, and the European Commission's recent strategies affecting higher education such as Europe 2020, represented a form of "soft law" lacking in transparency and built-in safeguards.

While this was "worrying in and of itself" for a democrat, continued Dr Garben, the processes were also "the key motors behind the marketisation of higher education, which touches on many fundamental questions of how we see our societies. It is unacceptable that such key decisions are being made in such an undemocratic way."

The only solution was to incorporate their provisions into the formal body of EU law, she argued.

Pedro Teixeira, assistant professor of economics at the University of Porto in Portugal, also noted "a growing trend towards marketisation in higher education at the national level, which could lead naturally to the emergence of a market across Europe". Yet both university rankings and the distribution of grants by the European Research Council showed a clear pattern of "winners and losers" among European nations, with the UK, Switzerland and the Netherlands doing well and those in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe lagging far behind.

If such trends give "a picture of what is to come", he added, "it is likely to generate significant tensions around the Bologna Process".

Meanwhile, Baroness Young, presenting the House of Lords' recent report The Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe, responded that its inquiry had found "no witnesses who wanted the Bologna Process to be reconstituted on a more formal footing".

Anne Corbett, visiting fellow at the LSE's European Institute, was also "unconvinced that we are likely to see any political enthusiasm for the legal integration of higher education into mainstream EU policy".

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