As the pace of compliance with the Bologna Process of convergence of higher education systems varies across Europe, Ján Figel, the incoming Education Commissioner, has called for more involvement by Brussels.
His comments, in answer to a questionnaire from the European Parliament, came as efforts to put into place aspects of the convergence package - including a common structure for undergraduate and masters courses - encountered difficulties in a number of countries.
Mr Figel, from Slovakia, said he would draft the rules for a European framework for recognition of qualifications, diplomas and other assessments while leaving implementation to member states. The framework would cover "certification principles" and "quality assurance".
The Czechs are still resisting the Bologna model, while the Italian Government has indicated that it may further "reform" the degree structure it adopted specifically to comply with Bologna.
However, Eric Froment, president of the European University Association, said last week: "Governments are responding to local pressures and demands, seeking to ostensibly improve the original concept.
"This, of course, results in a fragmentation, an undermining of the path towards harmonisation. Ironically, these are governments that in 1999 all agreed, with enthusiasm and determination, to sign the Bologna Declaration and to be part of a clearly defined process of harmonisation.
"I believe the Bologna Process is still the only foundation for a European university system," he said.
Czech minister pushes on despite refuseniks
The Czech education minister, Petra Buzkova, has vowed to push ahead with plans to increase the numbers of university graduates by 60 per cent within three years through wider adoption of two-tier degrees despite resistance from some academics, writes Nick Holdsworth.
The plans are designed to help bring Czech higher education in line with that of other European countries under the Bologna Process and to help raise the proportion of university graduates in the country, which is the lowest in Europe. Figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development show that graduates make up just 12 per cent of the Czech adult population. In Germany the figure is 23 per cent and in Britain per cent.
Ms Buzkova, who was appointed Education Minister in 2002 and survived the collapse this summer of the government led by Vladimir Spidla, has put the cost of converting the traditional Czech five-year masters degrees to a two-tier degree at more than 785 million koruna (£17 million), a figure that proponents of the system dismiss as absurd.
The shift to the widely adopted European system of a three-year bachelors degree followed by the option of two more years of study for a masters has been under way sluggishly for several years, and several disciplines already offer a two-tier approach.
But most students still opt for the five-year masters. Masters were awarded to 18,000 students last year, compared with 8,000 bachelors degrees.
Students say employers do not understand the value of a three-year bachelors, and opponents of the change argue that many specialised courses - such as medicine, law and technical subjects - barely scratch the surface of what a student needs to absorb in the first three years of study.
Petr Mateju, a sociologist and former MP who in 2001 sponsored a bill that gave a 2003 deadline for Czech universities to offer separate masters degrees in a bachelors-based system, said resistance from academics who liked the security of five-year funding for students was the main reason why the reform had not taken root.
Mr Mateju said the Education Minister's estimate of the cost of the reform was ridiculous and universities should not be rewarded with additional funding, but punished for failing to embrace the change.
"With two tiers, only a small percentage (of students) would apply and be accepted for a masters, and universities would have to compete for students - which they don't like one bit," Dr Mateju told the Prague Post .
Opponents of two-tier degrees insist that their reasons are intellectual, not financial.
Stanislav Stipek, vice-dean of the first medical faculty at Charles University, said that even though he understood and accepted that many jobs in healthcare today did not require a full medical degree, the first three theory-heavy years of a Czech medical diploma were a prerequisite for any further study.
"You cannot have a conceptually complete three-year bachelors degree in medicine because the first three years are just a foundation. Even for the range of healthcare jobs beyond medical doctor, you need this basis and then can go on to more specialised study."
Jiri Pehe, director of the New York University in Prague, said Czech education as a whole was in need of an overhaul to bring it in line with Europe.
"We have a lot of people with high-school education, but since students graduate from high schools at the age of 19, most of them have the equivalent of two years of college. Some of them then go for the nastavba , a two-year higher education course, which they finish without really getting any degree.
"Introducing a two-tier system of college education would clear things up.
High-school education could end a year earlier, and people who now take the nastavba could get bachelors degrees."
Finns get on track with mandatory first degree
Finnish universities are to fall in line with the Bologna Declaration next year by introducing a two-tier degree structure with a compulsory first degree, or kandidaatintutkinto, writes Raili Seppänen.
The new structure will apply to all disciplines except medicine and dentistry from August 2005. Finland last reformed the university degree programme in the early 1990s, when it reintroduced the bachelors degree in most disciplines. At the time, however, the first degree was in essence an intermediate degree with little relevance in the labour market.
From next year, the kandidaatintutkinto will be a stand-alone degree, although universities hope that most people will go on to study for a masters degree.
At the moment students obtain, in principle, the right to study for the first and second degrees simply by gaining a university place. Those already studying may opt to continue their studies within the old structure but will need to complete their degrees within a set time limit.
The change in the law also abolishes the practice of study weeks, which have been in place since the late 1970s. This will be replaced next year by the European credit transfer system, which should facilitate comparisons between Finnish and other European degrees. The new credit system will also apply to polytechnics.
Promoting internationalisation is the key. The Ministry of Education is working with universities and polytechnics towards ambitious targets for student exchanges. It aims to have one in three higher education students study abroad for at least part of their degree.
The ministry is also keen to see a rapid increase in the number of masters degrees taught in English to attract more international students.
Currently, most English-language programmes are in IT and technology, but the ministry hopes to broaden the range in the next few years to meet its target of doubling the number of foreign students by 2010.
At that point, at least 15 per cent of research students are expected to come from abroad and the number of exchange students to reach 28,000 a year.
Don't 'reform the reform', says Italian rector
Piero Tosi, president of the Italian Rectors' Conference, last week called for a defence of the three-years-plus-two European degree architecture from Government attempts to make radical changes before it is properly run in, writes Paul Bompard.
The rector of Siena University said: "Bearing in mind that the three-plus-two system began to be implemented only three years ago, the results are very positive. The dropout rate has been cut by half, and the number of graduates has increased."
Professor Tosi was speaking at the presentation of the annual report of the Rectors' Conference to an audience that included most of the Italian Cabinet.
"It would be a mistake to 'reform the reform' before it is fully up to speed," Professor Tosi said. "Improvements may well be possible, but the basic structure should remain. Universities cannot operate properly in an endless context of successive radical changes, seen as 'no-cost' reforms by the Government, but organisationally very costly to the universities."