Bologna Process still ‘treading water’, say critics

Nearly two decades on, reports suggest the goal of a unified higher education area in Europe is still some distance away

May 29, 2018
synchronised swimmers
Source: Getty
Stagnation: the dream of Europe-wide student mobility is still in the doldrums, treading water

Europe’s universities and students’ unions have raised questions about the mixed record of the Bologna Process, the continent’s mammoth effort to synchronise degrees in order to ease and improve student mobility, as higher education ministers met in Paris to discuss its future.

Signed in 1999, the Bologna Declaration committed to harmonising Europe’s patchwork of often lengthy degrees using a standard model of a three-year undergraduate course followed by a postgraduate programme, normally two years long.

Agreed in the shadow of the Yugoslav wars, it aimed to give European citizens an “awareness of shared values and belonging to a common social and cultural space”.

But although originally slated for completion in 2010, the process still continues.

Michael Gaebel, director of the Higher Education Policy Unit at the European University Association, said that the dream of Europe-wide student mobility “hasn’t been fully achieved” and noted that the recognition of degrees from other countries was still “not automatic”.

On the whole, European universities have sliced up traditional five-year courses – like Germany’s diplom – into BA and MA degrees.

However, there was not always “sufficient attention to implementation”, said Mr Gaebel: for example, some universities rushed it through without properly rethinking the curriculum. “In some places, they had to do it literally overnight,” he said.

In some countries, a significant minority of students – one in five in Sweden – still take traditional long degrees, particularly in areas such as medicine, architecture, dentistry and engineering, according to The European Higher Education Area in 2018: Bologna Process Implementation Report, released to coincide with a summit of ministers on 24-25 May.

Another aim of splitting up such long degrees is to allow students to move into work after three, rather than five, years of study.

But the report shows that starting an MA shortly after graduation remains the norm in many countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Russia. In only a quarter of the 48 countries in the European Higher Education Area – those signed up to implement Bologna – do less than one in four students continue straight on to an MA (these include the UK and Spain).

Pressure to do a master’s can come from employers or academics, who might believe, say, that a person cannot be “a real engineer” with only a BA, Mr Gaebel said. In some countries – Germany, for example – BA students have good employment prospects, but in other countries “you could say Bologna has failed” in this respect, he said.

The target is now for 20 per cent of graduates in the EHEA to have had “a study or training period abroad by 2020”. Although defining this is complex, the proportion of tertiary students enrolled abroad remains far below this goal in almost every European country: about 4 per cent in France and Germany, and less than 2 per cent in the UK and Poland, according to the implementation report.

Caroline Sundberg, vice-president of the European Students’ Union, said that she was “sceptical” that the 2020 target would be hit. Proper financial support is needed to help disadvantaged students to go abroad, and degrees should have “mobility windows” – specific semesters when overseas study is encouraged, she said.

The union has also warned that student flows are skewed: for every two students travelling from the east of the continent to the west, just one travels the other way. Mobility in Europe “must stop treading water”, it warns in a highly critical recent assessment, Bologna with Student Eyes.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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