Rules and regulations will just cramp our style

August 1, 2003

The white paper and the Bologna process threaten the values and dynamics of UK higher education, argues Maurice Kogan

Sometimes I wonder whether ministers and some institutional leaders remember, or ever knew, what universities are for. This thought is invited by reading as much as I can bear about the Bologna agreement and our own white paper on higher education. There is a values gap between the two. The white paper hardly mentions Europe, while Bologna naively seeks to open up national systems. The white paper would reinforce our system's competitiveness and stratification. Its policy style is inward-looking, not internationalist.

A better starting point would be the basic principles of academic life. The best academics are individualistic, and good institutions encourage that. Anything distracting from that should be critically examined. Internationalism is not antithetical to individual excellence. As United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan put it, "combining the familiar with the foreign can be a source of powerful knowledge and insight".

But culture is a tender plant best derived from mastery of one's own domain and not strengthened by ill-considered policies imposed from distant horizons. In examining what constitutes academic identities, Mary Henkel ( Academic Identities and Policy Change in Higher Education, 2000 ) refers to the distinctive individual who has a unique history, located in a chosen moral and conceptual landscape, and recognised within a defined community by the results achieved.

Identity is strengthened through education and experience, which should include sympathy with non-native experience. The best academics are cosmopolitan. But the journey begins at home. Individuality is fostered by membership of academic communities, which afford academics confidence within international communities. If we add a European identity, we have to be certain of what it is and what it might displace.

Bologna, like most British policy documents, including the white paper, has nothing to say about individual academics. The "architecture", a uniform structure of degrees and cycles, is advocated in the name of student mobility and transferability of qualifications. These may be worthy aims but their achievement assumes equality of school preparation and labour market expectations. And transferability involves uprooting existing structures.

These policies are being marketed with disingenuous ambiguity. Promotion of transferability will lead to questionable educational and evaluative changes. European-wide work by subject area and reference levels, expressed as learning outcomes, will be required. A workload system, such as the European Credit Transfer System, is not thought sufficient, so other descriptors will be needed, and national systems will need to work with the ECTS.

Maybe some European systems struggling to improve need this corseting. We do not. The council of ministers will encourage European perspectives in the development of quality assurance agencies. They will defer to national systems but look forward to a general system promoting unspecified European dimensions. A high degree of harmonisation will take place and a European forum will accredit national agencies and country procedures for institutional evaluation.

Many academics have struggled to rid themselves of formulaic and uniform modes of evaluation imposed on the variety that is higher education's strength. They do not need another level of evaluation, implicit in a European system. There are already internationally acceptable degrees. To fit them into one evaluative mould so that all can posture as equivalent would be a vacuous and dishonest exercise.

The alternative model would not start with macro-system criteria, but with academics advancing knowledge through scholarship and from contact with students. Such a process would differ from that implied by benchmarking and outcome measures.

A further intention is to enhance Europe's worldwide competitiveness, but the white paper argues that we must concentrate research to compete with the rest of the world including Europe. Some areas might need to compete when selling a service, but why in undergraduate education and more basic research?

Bologna and the white paper evince no knowledge of or sympathy for the values and dynamics of higher education. We are good Europeans, working with our colleagues in other countries, without all of this.

Maurice Kogan is professor emeritus of government and director of the Centre for the Evaluation of Public Policy and Practice at Brunel University. His article is based on a paper delivered at a Society for Research into Higher Education seminar on Bologna and the white paper.

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