My, how you've grown

The Bologna Process covers 46 countries and 30 million students, but fundamental issues remain, says Anne Corbett

March 11, 2010

The unanswered Kissinger question, "What number do I call for Europe?", applies to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Who should you call? The European Commission? The European Union? The European Parliament? Ah, the Bologna Process ... but where's that? Managed by 46 states, its secretariat shifts every two to three years. No ordinary mortal can keep up with the consequential changes in rules and attitude.

This week, the Austrians and the Hungarians take centre stage. Ministers and officials, the Commission, university representatives, students, the Council of Europe and official guests will be feting Bologna's first decade in their empire's most iconic spots.

The Bologna Process started in 1999 as a weak intergovernmental initiative among 29 countries. Today, it has brought together 46 nations, including Russia and Turkey. All have signed up to its democratic values of tolerance and openness, and its instrumental aims of compatibility and comparability across university systems. This suggests an EHEA of at least 30 million students and more than 6,000 institutions.

Aided by Commission funding and Council of Europe standard-setting, almost all participants are adopting, if not always implementing, Bologna's framework instruments for compatibility. The undergraduate/master's/doctorate structure is close to being the norm. Most countries have signed up to the practice and principle of fair recognition of other nations' diplomas, have agreed quality assurance processes and have accepted that national qualifications should be expressed in a Europe-wide matrix.

Comparability is a thornier issue. Nevertheless, all 46 are benchmarked on how they are adapting to Bologna. They have agreed to develop an accessible store of multi-dimensional information about the aims and achievements of their national institutions.

But the EHEA faces two problems that need a political response. The first is whether it can be a credible unit with such a diverse membership. Political drive is needed to overcome a tilt to the West through university mechanisms such as joint degrees, joint doctoral supervision and joint research projects, as well as more widespread and extensive mobility.

A second, and more visible, problem is that within Europe, many academics and students see Bologna as a neoliberal project to develop a higher education market. Many academics maintain that structural changes will lower standards.

It is unrealistic to think that adequate responses to such issues can come from two-yearly meetings to which ministers often give no more than passing attention, or from the present Bologna management arrangements, although these were declared "fit for purpose" at the ministerial conference at Leuven, Belgium last year.

The Bologna Follow-Up Group, which does the everyday work, consists of civil servants and the representatives of key university interest groups at the European level. But despite recent changes, it still looks EU-biased and lacks political clout.

The EHEA needs politicians, especially past and present higher education ministers, to demonstrate their commitment to the Bologna communiques they have signed. These include a commitment to higher education as a public good, whatever its funding, and support for the cultural and scientific values of the university as an institution.

The first task is to take on the arguments about the EHEA as a market and distil from them elements such as universities' relevant contribution to economic growth through high-level education, while stressing the responsibility to maintain an institution that some still describe as the greatest invention of the human mind.

There is also a case for the ministers of poorer countries and non-EU nations to become more daring and challenge their more favoured counterparts to agree solidarity measures.

Such action would go against the consensual traditions of an intergovernmental process and the habitual recourse to the generalities and ambiguities that hide national "red lines". The stakes are high.

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