Some stumbling on common ground

January 9, 2004

The Bologna process' 40 signatories have been working to forge a European higher education area by 2010, but progress has been patchy, THES writers find.

Degree structure

The corralling of centuries of diverse European academic tradition into a common pre-doctorate two-tier system of bachelors and masters degrees was always going to be a challenging and complex task, but this keystone of the Bologna process seems to be the most developed of its varied strands, writes Keith Nuthall.

Only French and German-speaking Belgium, Hungary, Luxembourg, Portugal, Romania and Sweden are yet to take significant steps towards this goal.

For the German-speaking enclaves and Luxembourg, their tiny size and poorly developed higher education systems offers an excuse, but for the other countries, a report from the European information network Eurydice offers some useful analysis.

Portugal is on its way to joining the two-tier club, with a proposed basic law on education providing for two education cycles leading to the licenciado and mestre degrees.

In Sweden, a ministry of education and science project group is writing a report for publication in February based on its review of the country's degree structure from an international perspective. Changes may follow.

Similarly, the two-tier system is being examined in Belgium's Francophone regions of Wallonia and Brussels, although complex rules on pre-degree studies may impede progress. Sluggish progress can be expected in Hungary, which will join the European Union in May. Colleges offer single-cycle bachelors programmes lasting three to four years and single-cycle masters courses of five to six years. Reform discussions are under way, but no two-tier reforms will be introduced before 2004-05 and will "not be wholesale", with some courses being excluded.

Romania is further from EU entry, and its problems regarding Bologna reflect difficulties in attaining the professional, administrative and economic standards needed to join Europe. The government's strategy for Romanian higher education for 2002-10 involves a commitment to a standard bachelor-masters-doctorate cycle, but, Eurydice says in its report, "the major issue is that of the relevance and comparability of these qualifications in relation to European qualifications".

Bologna has nonetheless led to a wide acceptance of the two-tier system, which is firmly entrenched in most of Europe's wealthy countries - Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain and the UK. It is also the norm in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Slovakia, and it has been partly adopted in (Greek) Cyprus, Estonia, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovenia.

Credit transfers

Introduction of a common credit-transfer system allowing students to combine studies at different foreign universities to attain their qualifications has a less uniform application across Europe. But the principle has been accepted: few territories (German-speaking Belgium, Luxembourg and Portugal) have not introduced credit-transfer rules.

Portugal already operates a credit-transfer system that is compatible with the European Credit Transfer System. Ects has been directly introduced in Austria, the Czech Republic, Flanders, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia and Slovenia. It is being introduced in France, Poland, French-speaking Belgium and Romania.

Several countries, among them the UK, have experienced a raft of concerns and difficulties with grafting the European credit model on to their national higher education systems, but they continue to carefully adapt existing national credit-transfer rules. This group includes Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Spain and Sweden.

Eurydice says that although universities in England, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland, have used Ects in Erasmus exchange programmes, "there is still scope for expanding the use of credit systems".

Swifter action is anticipated in Spain, where there have been calls for the immediate adoption of Ects. Meanwhile, Sweden has a broadly compatible set-up.

Quality assurance

Eurydice reports wide adherence to the European Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education.

Four countries stand out. Greece does not participate in Enqa through its ministry of education, although a planned national system for quality assurance assessment in higher education is included in broad university legislative reforms.

The Dutch government has followed a national path. It created a Netherlands accreditation organisation in 2002 to assess bachelors and masters programmes.

Poland is developing its assessment systems, and a new state accreditation commission has "started to control the quality of education in several institutions". There have been moves since January 2002 to create a universal higher education accreditation system, Eurydice says.

Romania is committed to join Enqa, but it does not take part in its work.

The Romanian national council for academic assessment and accreditation (created in 1994) has been charged with following a new ministerial order increasing the frequency of quality checks in higher education.

Widespread quality assurance moves are viewed positively in Eastern Europe.

Bulgaria established a national evaluation and accreditation agency in 1995, and although it is not yet a member of Enqa it has contacts with the body. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia all participate with or are members of Enqa.

These countries' accession to the EU in May can only boost their links with richer European countries, whose academic standards controls are often well entrenched. Enqa member France, for instance, regularly evaluates its training and certification arrangements for higher education, using these assessments to award funding over limited periods. In decentralised Germany, the federal education ministry and the national university association have set up an accreditation council covering all bachelors and masters courses.

Belgium

Belgium, at the heart of the European ideal, is one of the small number of countries regarded as laggards in the Bologna process, writes Alan Osborn.

It is divided into three linguistic communities - French, Flemish (Dutch) and German-speaking - and the tiny German-speaking enclave has no higher education of its own to speak of.

Higher education is well developed in the French and Flemish communities.

All fields are covered, and all have universities as well as higher education institutions such as the haute ecoles .

The Flemish and French communities have adopted Ects. Belgium's problem with Bologna arises from the fact that in both main linguistic communities, the gap between universities and higher education institutions that are not universities is wide with little overlap. Under the Bologna process, students should receive a first degree after three years at university. In Belgium, universities award an intermediate qualification ( candidature ) that is merely a proof that a student has completed a bachelors course and is ready to go on to further study, in effect postgraduate study. This candidature is not a formal qualification providing access to the jobs market.

By contrast, non-university institutions, which offer programmes regarded under Bologna as vocational, do offer proper diplomas after three years that can lead to masters courses.

Arlette Delhexhe, deputy head of study and comparative analysis at Eurydice, said: "The risk is that there will be fewer students in the first years at the universities because candidates will try first to get a qualifying diploma in the non-university institutions."

Belgian universities were moving towards a three-plus-one year or a three-plus-two model depending on the discipline, she said.

Luxembourg

Luxembourg's tiny population of 400,000 has not, until now, been capable of sustaining a university.

Most students go abroad to complete their higher education after the first year. The Luxembourg superior technology institutes, which lack university status, provide a four-year post-secondary course that qualifies students to continue learning up to a masters degree in German universities.

There are 3,000 students in post-secondary education in Luxembourg, and 4,000 Luxembourgeois study in foreign universities - mainly in Francophone Belgium, France and Germany.

Luxembourg is now on course to create a university based on the two main Bologna structure cycles. Beginning in the 2004-05 academic year, a number of two-year management and computer science courses, together with "centres of excellence", will be set up. This means there should be a student population of 10,000 or more in Luxembourg within a decade. This will form part of a higher education nexus stretching across four countries, where the normal learning curve may be to study for two years in Luxembourg, attend university in another country for two years and then return to Luxembourg for postgraduate studies.

Luxembourg is confident that staff can be recruited in part by repatriating its nationals who now work in universities in neighbouring countries.

Spain and Portugal

Spanish universities have been slow to embark on Bologna reforms, but some progress is visible, writes Rebecca Warden.

Decrees on introducing Ects and easing recognition of foreign degrees have been passed, and universities are starting to implement the diploma supplement.

Measured against the 2005 priorities set by the Berlin meeting of ministers in September - degree structure, recognition and quality - Spain has a mixed record.

"We are still in a very preliminary phase. The only significant step is that there is a general consensus that it is worth going for Bologna," says Josep Ferrer, rector of the Technical University of Catalonia.

There has been clear progress on quality. In the mid-1990s, quality assurance was still in its infancy. A national quality agency and several regional agencies are now running, and all universities have quality programmes in place.

But the critical question of degree structure is still unresolved. Draft legislation published last June states that first degrees will consist of 180 to 240 credits, lasting three or four years, although most universities favour the four-year option. However, a small but vocal group of universities - including Jaume I of Castell"n, Pompeu Fabre and the Autonomous of Barcelona and Deusto of the Basque Country - want three-year first degrees and two-year masters.

In Portugal, higher education has been organised in line with the bachelors/masters structure. But the Eurydice report notes that this applies "only in some courses".

Of all the countries surveyed, only Portugal neither operate Ects nor is about to introduce it. But the Portuguese 2003 law for the reform of higher education refers to the need to do so. Portugal is also one of a number of countries still debating the possible use of diploma supplements.

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