For 20 years, mass mobility of students and exchange of academics across even the limited pre-enlarged European Union seemed an impossible dream.
Numerous meetings of the Council of Education Ministers failed to generate any real enthusiasm outside the small circle of Europhiles, with the possible exception of the low-volume Erasmus programme. But within months of the 1998 Sorbonne Declaration, that initiative was transformed into the ambitious Bologna Declaration.
Halfway through the process of convergence towards a European Higher Education Area, the time for British universities, academics and administrators to stand on the sidelines is over. The next ministerial summit - in Bergen in May - will make a critical assessment of progress.
In Britain, awareness of Bologna is growing slowly but remains low compared with the rest of Europe. Dangerous is any complacency born of an assumption that a (mainly) three-year honours degree and a historically high Erasmus profile makes Britain Bologna-ready. The onus is on UK higher education to prove its Bologna credentials.
The majority of Bologna countries - markedly those from the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe - have been moving quickly, and Britain’s competitive advantage is no longer unrivalled. Most are moving rapidly towards a three-plus-two structure for the first two cycles of higher education, and quality assurance mechanisms are mushrooming across the Continent.
This week’s European University Association Convention in Glasgow and the probability that the 2007 ministerial meeting will be hosted by Britain give the Government, funding agencies and universities a chance to raise the profile of the EHEA in this country.
Bologna is proving it is a club that not everyone can join. Membership is a privilege. For UK universities, European involvement is no longer an optional extra. Whatever the future of the European Union, this country, its wealth-creators and its decision-makers need to be fully informed on the cultural and economic conditions in which they operate. In a globalised world, we are all Europeans.