Governments have used the Bologna Process as a "Trojan Horse" to force through controversial reforms of their higher education systems, university rectors from across Europe heard.
Speaking at the European University Association conference in Palermo, Sicily, last week, Alex Usher, president of the Canadian consultancy Higher Education Strategy Associates, warned university leaders that unless they "stop talking about Bologna and find some new things to discuss" they risk undermining local and regional policy.
Declaring the European Higher Education Area a success, Mr Usher said rectors should "just declare victory and go home" to encourage greater diversity between institutions and countries taking part in the Bologna Process.
Sybille Reichert, director of Reichert Consulting for Higher Education, in Switzerland, agreed that "under the heading of Bologna, all sorts of other reforms on autonomy and governance (have been implemented)".
The resulting wave of reform across Europe led to widespread student protests over Bologna, despite a lack of understanding of its common goals.
The opening ceremony of the EUA conference was disrupted as Sicilian students demonstrated outside the venue, protesting against massive cuts to the Italian education budget that had led to an immediate increase in student tuition fees, alongside a host of other reforms.
Taking the floor of the conference, a spokesman for the group of protesters said they were part of a movement that stood "against this government and what they are doing to public universities in Italy. They are proposing reforms that amount to a patriarchy within universities to give more power to the rectors and less power to the representatives for students and researchers."
Mr Usher said governments and university principals had become so obsessed with the Bologna Process that key local higher education policy decisions had been overlooked, resulting in even greater homogenisation of the European academy.
"This pan-Europe policy is creating policy at a local level, and that can't be a good thing. Just because a policy doesn't have a European dimension, it doesn't mean it isn't important," he said.
He argued that Europe should be a "lab for new ideas. Now more than ever we need governments and institutions to experiment and be bold. We need to compare notes about what works and what does not."
Jean-Marc Rapp, president of the EUA, said it was "no surprise" that students objected to Bologna because of the way regional governments had portrayed it to the public.
"In many cases, the governments that were implementing Bologna did realise that their country...needed to reform their system so it would be more efficient. They said to the public: 'Bologna is there, we need to reform.' People would understand that Bologna demands that reform, which wasn't the case," he said.
Participation: Growing but not widening?
The Europe-wide push to widen participation in higher education may serve only to perpetuate social inequalities, according to an Irish university president.
The warning comes as the European Commission reiterated its commitment to ensuring that 40 per cent of young Europeans obtain a university-level qualification by 2020. The average participation rate in Europe currently stands at 31 per cent, with rates in some countries as low as 15 per cent.
Speaking at the European University Association conference, Androulla Vassiliou, Europe's commissioner for education, encouraged every country to step up efforts to widen access.
"Our main competitors are ahead of Europe in putting many more of their young people through university. Even those countries that are already achieving above this target figure must do more," she said.
But Tom Collins, president of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, said widening participation risked simply "turning inherited disadvantage into achieved disadvantage", a move he described as "dangerous".
Ireland has achieved a participation rate of 74 per cent, but analysis shows that while almost all young people whose parents are in higher professional roles now go to university, less than a third of those from semi-skilled or unskilled backgrounds do.
"I'm not sure that the issue of equality can best be addressed in higher education," he said.
"Increasingly, those of us who are involved in policymaking make that argument because it has managed to get resources into higher education...(but) it's potentially disingenuous of higher education to be making arguments for egalitarianism when (some) children, by the age of four, are already largely constrained by their background to underachieve."
Professor Collins also questioned how standards could be maintained with greater participation at a time when universities "have to do a lot more with a lot less".