Bologna threat to masters plan

September 26, 2003

Enhanced four-year degrees designed to take undergraduates to the "cutting edge" of disciplines such as engineering, chemistry and physics may be left out in the cold by the Bologna process despite ministers' efforts to safeguard their international status.

The 40 Bologna countries are committed to a convergence process towards a European Higher Education Area by 2010. This is partly based on a degree cycle of three years for a first degree followed by a further two years leading to a masters.

A summit in Berlin last week of ministers responsible for higher education recognised the questions surrounding Britain's two-year foundation degrees.

It called for exploration of "whether and how" shorter higher education may be linked to the first cycle.

But the failure of ministers to refer to the enhanced degree issue in the communique was, according to Tony Ashmore, registrar of the Royal Chemistry Society, "not encouraging".

Four-year undergraduate programmes leading to a masters qualification, such as the MEng, are unknown in the rest of Europe. Mr Ashmore said: "These qualifications go beyond the scope of the first cycle and should be viewed as part of the second cycle."

Professional bodies involved with the enhanced degrees, set up during the 1990s to ensure that graduates were taken to the cutting edge of the disciplines, briefed ministers before the Berlin summit.

The Engineering Council warned that a perception of lower standards for masters could be damaging if it led to MEng degrees not being recognised for progression to professional qualification in other countries.

Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College London, raised the issue with education secretary Charles Clarke, while Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK, held a pre-Berlin meeting with Ivan Lewis, junior minister for young people and adult skills.

A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said: "We have for a long time been defending the importance of awards such as these." The absence of a reference in the communique did not mean they were unlikely to be recognised, he said. "On the contrary, the communique now makes specific reference to the importance of what the student can demonstrate that they know - the 'learning outcomes' - rather than putting too much emphasis simply on the amount of time they have spent studying," he said.

The DFES said questions had initially been raised over whether the foundation degrees would be acceptable under Bologna. But it was confident they would be.

* A report by the European Union education think-tank Eurydice, a summary of which has been obtained by The THES , identifies Belgium and Luxembourg as the two countries moving most swiftly towards the Bologna degree structure. Of eight countries yet to pass restructuring laws only Belgium (for its small German-speaking community) and Luxembourg had no plans to do so. The report will be published in full in November.

Albania, Andorra, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Holy See, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Macedonia signed up to Bologna in Berlin.

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