Nothing to fear but fear itself

April 1, 2005

Bologna’s harmonisations will benefit Britain as much as they help Europe as a whole, says Tessa Blackstone

Seven years ago, I joined education ministers from France, Germany and Italy to take the first step towards a shared structure for higher education in Europe. Only a year later, 29 ministers had signed the Bologna Declaration, endorsing ambitious plans to create a European Higher Education Area by 2010 and to promote the European system of higher education worldwide. Now, more than forty countries have signed up and the six initial objectives of the declaration have grown to ten.

My three former ministerial counterparts committed their higher education systems to much greater change than we have to adopt in the UK, as the model is, in essence, the one that prevails here. Elsewhere, extensive reforms have been required.

The reason that so many countries have been prepared to change so much is that the goals of this partnership are so important. First, the partnership will enable us to meet the needs of our societies by encouraging the employability and mobility of those in higher education. A second aim is to increase the competitiveness of European higher education in the world market. By adopting similar systems across Europe and providing more information, we make it easier for potential students to shift from one system to another. But just because we in the UK face fewer changes than many of our neighbours does not mean that we can sit back. Every institution needs to engage positively with this process; every institution will benefit.

There is still much to do to meet our goals by 2010, but support is available in the shape of a team of senior academics and administrative managers appointed as “Bologna promoters” to advise universities. There are also plans for Bologna conferences. The UK HE Europe Unit is playing a key role in information dissemination, as well as strengthening the UK’s position on relevant European policymaking bodies.

Do we face any threats from the changes? I think not. I know there are concerns about assurance, but these are misplaced. The Bologna Process commits us to co-operation not unification, and given the UK’s excellent quality assurance, we have nothing to fear.

Another concern is whether UK students will have to study for longer. The answer is no. The minimum length of an undergraduate degree in Europe will be three years. And when we signed up to Bologna, the UK always argued against any harmonisation on length of masters degrees. Rather, we should look at learning outcomes to ensure that qualifications from different countries relate to each other.

So, the Bologna goals are attainable. Yes, they require change, but they offer us the opportunity to participate more fully in the changing world of European higher education, attracting more students and academic staff to study and work in the UK.

Baroness Blackstone is vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich. She was Minister of State for Education and Employment 1997-2001.

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