Britain's challenges can be developed into Europe's strengths

The UK has the opportunity to make dynamic changes to European higher education if only it would make the effort, writes Anne Corbett

October 30, 2008

The recent coverage of the Bologna Process in Times Higher Education suggests that Americans, and others, now judge Europe's strategy for developing a common higher education area as well-adapted to a globalised world, but we Brits think that aspects of the process are "unfair" to Britain.

Let me put a counter-proposition: official British attitudes to Bologna are so inward-looking as to be destructive. Policymakers need to rethink a strategy that has veered from complacency to defensiveness.

The British should say that there is no way its system can be compatible and withdraw from Bologna, or its policymakers should reframe the issue in dynamic terms.

In practice, few could believe it is realistic for Britain to back off voluntarily from Bologna. If Britain were to make a unilateral declaration of independence, it would immeasurably harm the prospects of British graduates and deter foreign students. At best, Britain would be like Norway in relation to the European Union, shadowing every development but excluded from the policy process. It would also damage thousands of trans-border institutional collaborations and friendships that straddle the university world.

It would also be surreal. Indicators used in 2007 to monitor progress on five of the ten Bologna action lines, produced on the basis of information submitted by national ministries, show Britain as almost completely Bologna-compatible, not far behind the Netherlands, Ireland and most Scandinavian states.

In four issues, the British system has been there, done that, on a large scale: the three-cycle undergraduate/postgraduate system; the adoption of quality assurance systems based on internal institutional evaluation and independent external review compatible with Bologna-defined guidelines; the recognition of prior learning that goes with the expansion of lifelong learning; and encouragement of joint trans-border degrees.

The use of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), now taken up by 75 per cent of European universities, is the only indicator on which the UK lags behind. The UK mostly uses a learning-outcomes measure rather than the ECTS' length of study. But many institutions have adapted to, or are adapting to, the ECTS.

For other systems, achieving Bologna compatibility has been much more difficult. For Eastern European countries, it has been the second upheaval in a decade. Even in France, an initiator of the process, more needs to be done. The three-cycle degree structure, medical studies apart, will operate fully only from 2010. Its quality assurance system was scoring very modestly before a 2007 rethink.

But nationally generated data on structures published for Bologna should give pause for thought. These data support the view hammered into me by European policymakers during my research into Bologna policymaking. Where others in the league of the all-but-Bologna-compatible systems sound purposeful and forward-looking, the British adopt the attitude that they don't need to do much more. But if the basic reforms are in place, does that obviate the need to think? The French and others have used Bologna as the opportunity to undertake more politically sensitive reforms.

The fact is, Britain faces challenges that, in a global world, are weaknesses if perceived as unique, but contribute to diversity if seen as part of the general European offering. As highlighted by the Higher Education Policy Institute reports, UK undergraduates receive significantly less teaching than their continental counterparts and have a shorter higher education experience preceding the award of a masters degree. Norway has joined Germany in questioning the standards of UK PhDs. Furthermore, Britain charges fees, in some cases at off-puttingly Ivy-League levels.

But the one-year masters is not unique to Britain. The British are not alone in finding ways to accredit learning outcomes. Nor is Britain alone in charging fees or in handling a diversified university sector.

The political answer is surely to reframe the issues that Britain cares about as ones of general significance. Why don't those beyond a tight policymaking circle know much more about other European policy practices that match Britain's apparent particularities?

There has been British research and development money swirling around the technical issues of quality assurance and recognition, and lately employability - where British participants have made important inputs to Bologna policy development.

Now it is time for more serious research and debate into Bologna's political possibilities and for an outgoing strategy of coalitions and joint ventures that engage the British system more. If not, and to misquote Vincent Cable, we'll have nationalised the problems and Europeanised the solutions.

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