The move towards a common European higher education system is happening faster than many people realise, delegates to Salamanca 2001, the Convention of European Higher Education Institutions, heard last week.
The convention, attended by some 600 rectors, students and government and union officials, is a follow-up to the 1999 Bologna Declaration and the 1998 Sorbonne Declaration. Its recommendations are intended to influence European education ministers' decisions when they meet in Prague in May.
On degree structure, Bologna suggested adopting the three-plus-two-plus-three model - a three-year bachelors degree, two years for a masters and three for a doctorate.
Italy, Norway and Germany are adopting this model, and Sweden and the Czech Republic have already done so. But the pattern is far from uniform.
France, for example, has made little headway because of a lack of consensus between the elite Ecoles Normales and the university system. Subjects such as medicine and engineering, which have integrated courses, are hard to fit into a three-plus-two formula.
Johanna Witte, of Germany's Centre for Higher Education Development, said:
"Engineers have very strong subject networks and have reached a consensus that a two-tier system doesn't make sense. Even in the United Kingdom they are moving to a five-year system, and there is a general belief that you cannot be an engineer after only three years."
Individual universities are experimenting with versions of the formula, such as four plus one or four plus two.
Lars Ekholm, secretary-general of the Swedish Association of Higher Education, said: "For degree systems, the Bologna process means the Anglo-Saxon system takes over Europe."
Guy Haug, senior adviser to the Association of European Universities (CRE), believes British universities should not feel smug. He predicted that UK institutions would face increasing competition from cheaper and even free three-year bachelors degrees from continental Europe.
Accreditation was another hot topic. Sami Kanaan, CRE programme officer, said: "Some people say we should find cross-European mechanisms, others say we don't want centralised European bureaucracy."
The rectors' recommendation to Prague is for a European platform to coordinate existing systems, without setting up a mandatory agency.
Delegates debated the employability of graduates with three-year bachelors degrees. Jurgen Kohler, rector of Germany's Greifswald University, said: "A few years ago, some universities would have seen (talk of employability) as a sell-out to capitalism. But the core virtues that make a good academic are identical to what makes somebody successful in life."
Global competition was also on the agenda, particularly for the UK and Germany. There was discussion about the need for education trademarks, but much of the debate centred on why international competition was necessary.
Germany takes time to reform
Germany is taking a more gradual approach to Bologna-style degree reforms than Italy's two-year schedule.
Over ten years, institutions are introducing a mainly three-plus-two-plus-three structure to make it easier for students to transfer abroad and for foreign students to come to Germany. Ulrich Grothus, deputy secretary-general of the German Academic Exchange Service (ESIB), said: "People in Germany were taking too long to earn a degree... A second debate was the international attractiveness of study in Germany."
Initiatives being tried include joint degrees with foreign universities, international doctoral programmes taught in English and undergraduate programmes that start in English and later introduce lectures in German. "The attractiveness of a system depends on what it can deliver as a whole and not what it can deliver specifically to foreigners," Dr Grothus said.
Stefan Bienefeld, of the ESIB, believes the moves could reverse the drop in students from places such as East Asia. But he is concerned this will not be enough unless visa and work permit restrictions are lifted and action is taken to stem extreme rightwing groups on some campuses.
Czechs show fitness for EU
The Czech Republic was one of the first to adapt its degree system, ahead of Bologna, when it brought in the three-plus-two-plus-three model in April 1998 to replace traditional five-year qualifications.
An accreditation board was set up but, according to National Unions of Students in Europe representative Lukas Vylupek, quality assurance is weak.
Students do not pay tuition fees. But, at the same time as Czech rectors were arriving at Salamanca, the Czech senate approved legislation that some say paves the way for fees. The legislation sets minimum pass marks for entrance exams. Students failing to make the grade will be admitted only if they pay.
Josef Koubek, rector of the Institute of Chemical Technology Prague, believes fees could be socially divisive. He said: "We are trying to show our fitness for joining the European Union by accepting the principles of the Bologna Declaration."