Process Report - Bologna lacks coherent Europe-wide focus

Advisers bemoan 'missed opportunity' as students take to streets. John Morgan reports from Vienna

March 18, 2010

The Bologna Process has been described as a "missed opportunity" to offer a vision for higher education and research in Europe as it passed a milestone in its development.

The claim was made in Vienna as university leaders and government ministers gathered for the official launch of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

A declaration signed on 12 March says this will allow students "mobility with smooth and fair recognition for their qualifications".

However, it also notes "varying" progress on key Bologna goals, such as degree and curriculum reform, quality assurance and mobility.

It adds that recent protests, which were also seen in Vienna, "have reminded us that some of the Bologna ... reforms have not been properly implemented and explained".

There was also criticism from one of the authors of Trends 2010, a report for the European University Association (EUA) launched on 11 March that considers progress on the Bologna goals since 2002.

Andree Sursock, senior adviser at the EUA, told a press conference: "We have missed an opportunity in Bologna to talk about what education is about. Bologna does talk about education leading to graduate employability ... but is not really a coherent vision of what kind of educated citizens we need for the 21st century."

Make some noise

Outside the university, delegates saw evidence of strong opposition to the process. Thousands of students from across Europe filled the streets of Vienna, streaming past the University of Vienna to protest outside the Hofburg Palace, where higher education ministers were gathered for a celebratory event ahead of the Bologna ministerial anniversary conference.

The crowds were led by a lorry stacked with speakers, from which protesters broadcast slogans such as "Make Bologna history" over thumping music.

One of Bologna's key aims is the implementation of a three-cycle system of bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees across the 46 countries in the EHEA.

German and Austrian students have been particularly angered by the reforms, which they say have crammed their traditional Magister degrees - master's-level courses that can last up to five years - into three-year bachelor's degrees. They claim they are overworked and will be left with qualifications that have little status in the eyes of employers.

The European Students' Union said that in some countries, tuition fees had been introduced and participation reduced under the pretext of the process.

It called for ministers to commit to "supporting the aims of the Bologna Process, while not allowing for further confusion regarding the main goals and tools of the process".

Georg Winckler, rector of Vienna and former president of the EUA, told the media that the issues students are angry about "have nothing to do with Bologna". He said the real problem was the underfinancing of higher education, which has led to poor staff-to-student ratios.

One of the findings of Trends 2010, which surveyed 26 groups representing university leaders as well as universities covering 48 per cent of all students in the EHEA, is that 95 per cent of institutions have adopted the three-cycle system.

In addition, 53 per cent have put in place on all courses learning outcomes to demonstrate the exact level of understanding students will gain. Another 32 per cent of institutions have introduced learning outcomes on some courses.

On future priorities, the report says: "Institutional strategic orientations and European and national higher education policies would be enormously helped if they are framed within a broad vision of the society of the future.

"This would help institutions to exploit fully the link between the different elements of the Bologna Process and engage in the required curricular and pedagogical renewal that the shift to student-centred learning entails - a renewal that must be cast within a lifelong-learning perspective, and with the goals of widening and increasing access."

Dr Sursock, who co-authored the report with fellow EUA senior adviser Hanne Smidt, emphasised the importance of "the link between research and education, and providing research-based education".

She also called for a stronger European internationalisation strategy. "We believe that in order to be effective, there has to be a strong European identity rather than this very national approach to internationalisation," she said.

Professor Winckler said there had been "remarkable outcomes" from the Bologna Process, including the switch to a common degree cycle and a "common understanding of what PhD study should be".

Asked by Times Higher Education whether the stress on learning outcomes would mean more bureaucracy, Dr Sursock said that this was "an ever-present danger".

And how would the two-year degrees being pushed by the UK government fit into the process?

Eric Froment, vice-president of the Lumiere University Lyon 2 and founding president of the EUA, said: "You may do it, but not in Bologna, please."

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