The next steps towards a European higher education area present serious challenges. Anthea Lipsett reports.
When London hosts the 2007 Bologna summit next month it should help bring the vision of a transparent and coherent European higher education area by 2010 a step closer to reality.
But the initiative to create a European higher education area (EHEA) - and increase the mobility of students, researchers and university staff - has been plagued with misunderstandings since it began in 1999. In the UK in particular, universities often either ignore it or perceive implementing it as problematic.
Barry Sheerman MP, chairman of the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee, called Bologna "a very serious challenge for higher education".
The committee is due to report on the process later this month, and the MPs are likely to call on universities to "wake up" to the opportunities and threats it poses.
The Bologna Process is a voluntary intergovernmental agreement aimed at helping Europe's universities collaborate more closely and increase the mobility of their students and staff. This will be achieved partly by the greater use of both qualifications frameworks and credits.
The 45 signatory states decide the priorities rather than the European Commission, although the commission does fund projects that come out of the Bologna Process, and it has representatives on the Follow Up Group, which helps to move the scheme along in between summit meetings.
The fifth meeting of ministers and stakeholders on May 16 to 18 in London will build on the work officials have been doing since the last summit in 2005 and review the progress made collectively and at national level. It will establish how much more needs to be done to create the EHEA by 2010, discuss how it might look after 2010 and agree priorities for the next two years.
One key issue that needs to be resolved is the credit system for university qualifications. The Commission's European Credit Transfer and Accumulation Scheme is widely used, but it is seen as too prescriptive and focused on workload rather than learning outcomes.
This has led professional bodies in the UK to question whether four-year integrated masters degrees, such as those in chemistry and physics, will need to be revised to fit the European model.
Tony Ashmore, education director at the Royal Society of Chemistry, said:
"Most of the rest of continental Europe has moved to a system of BA after three years and two-year programmes to masters and then a further three years to PhD.
"There's a concern about the competitiveness of our masters graduates and how employers will perceive them."
Higher education institutions are lobbying to get the commission to accept the Bologna idea of credits based on learning outcomes rather than length of study.
Other issues include the proposed register of quality assurance agencies - more specifically who would own it, how it would be funded and what agencies would have to do to get on it. Ministers are also likely to consider doctoral programmes and the basic principles for doctorate-level qualifications in Europe.
Malcolm Cook, professor of French at Exeter University and one of the UK's 14 "Bologna promoters", said: "The Government seems to think the process is working well, but the picture we get is that it's very patchy, and some universities couldn't care less about it."
Financial incentives were required to help persuade vice-chancellors of its importance, he said.
Professor Cook said that universities that concentrated on India and China rather than Europe were being shortsighted. "£3,000 fees from European students doesn't compare with India and China, but that market will dry up and there will always be Europe. The best universities will be connected and have built up relationships with good European universities," he said.
But Anthony Vickers, head of Essex University's electronic systems engineering department and a Bologna promoter, said UK universities were doing well at complying with the recommendations of the initiative. "All British universities are broadly compliant with all ten action lines. The difficulties lie in how it is interpreted," he said.
"People get hung up on whether UK universities fit the two-cycles approach set out by Bologna (bachelors and masters level). We don't have two-year masters degrees so it looks like we're not compliant, but that's not what Bologna states. Bologna advises a credit system for England, and that will come in the Burgess report. Bologna is based on learning outcomes rather than on the length of time spent studying, and we are working on a credit accumulation system."
For Professor Vickers, one of the main advantages of Bologna is economic.
"It's about making sure that higher education in the 45 countries is strong and vibrant because all economic development of the future will rely on higher education," he said.
Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said: "The Bologna Process is important,Jespecially at a time ofJincreasing economic and social challenges posed by the rapid process of global change.JIf our institutions are to fulfil their role of preparing people for life and work in this new world they need to recognise the importance of engaging with Bologna and making the most of the opportunities it presents."
SCOTS AND WELSH TAKE LEAD IN EUROPE
Scottish and Welsh higher-education institutions are held up as leading the rest of Europe in implementing the Bologna Process.
Both have credit systems in place that are compatible with the Commission's European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System. And Scotland is the first of two countries (the other is Ireland) to implement a national qualifications framework. Scotland was involved in a pilot process to draw up the qualifications framework for the European Higher Education Area.
A Universities Scotland spokesperson said: "Scottish higher education, alongside other stakeholders, is at the cutting-edge of European practice in quality enhancement and student participation.
"All this makes it easier for staff and students to study and work overseas and enhances Scotland's reputation as a country that is creative, open to innovation, new ideas and technology."
Welsh universities are also well on their way to implementing Bologna.
Swansea University, for instance, issues the Diploma Supplement - a document that spells out a graduate's qualification and how it fits within the national and European education systems - to all undergraduate and taught masters students.
Huw Morris, Swansea's academic registrar, said there were financial gains to be made for universities - through attracting overseas students via generous studentships - but students were the main focus and beneficiaries of the process.
Swansea appointed an associate dean (Bologna) for its postgraduate research faculty, whose remit is to promote the Bologna agenda at postgraduate level.
Swansea found that the Bologna Process offered opportunities to enhance students' experience and to introduce a more international dimension into curricula.
It raised the profile of the university in Europe, and it was hoped that both the students and the university would benefit from the aims inherent in the Bologna agenda, Mr Morris said.
LEEDS MET STAYS AHEAD OF THE GAME
Leeds Metropolitan University is one of the English institutions leading the way in embracing the Bologna Process.
The university started issuing the Diploma Supplement document, spelling out how a graduate's qualification fits in the European system, ahead of the game in 2005. The majority of UK universities still do not issue the document.
Leeds Met also makes a note of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System equivalent score in brackets alongside the British score on each student's transcript.
Tim Birtwhistle, head of Leeds Law School, professor of law and policy of higher education, and one of the UK's Bologna promoters, is a driving force behind implementing the process at the university.
"(The Diploma Supplement means) that employers anywhere can see it's a Bologna first-cycle (bachelors) degree and easily compare it with others.
It's a factual statement that will become increasingly required by employers," he said.
Bologna is not the main topic of conversation in the university, Professor Birtwistle said, but Leeds Met tried to do everything required on time. And he said that the process would potentially open up a huge market of European masters level students for UK universities.
"Everybody's very conscious of the need to tap into a gene pool wherever they are and seek out good students to do interesting things. One of the phrases used a lot is vertical mobility rather than horizontal - where you do your first degree somewhere and then go somewhere else for the second.
That's common in the UK but it's a new concept to other European member states," he said.
American, Australian and even Malaysian universities were keen to find out more about the Bologna Process, Professor Birtwhistle said, and there was potential for a similar initiative in South America.
"Everybody is watching it closely. It's viewed as a template for the future by many other education systems. We ignore (the Bologna Process) at our peril."
The Bologna Process is underpinned by ten "action lines":
- Adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees
- Adoption of a system essentially based on two cycles (undergraduate and postgraduate)
- Establishment of a pan-European system of credits
- Promotion of student and staff mobility
- Promotion of European co-operation in quality assurance
- Promotion of the European dimension in higher education
- Focus on lifelong learning
- Inclusion of higher education institutions and students
- Promotion of the attractiveness of the EHEA
- Promotion of doctoral studies and links between the EHEA and the European Research Area
TIMELINE: Progress of the process
Ministers from 29 countries, including the UK, sign the Bologna Declaration to create a European Higher Education Area by 2010
Croatia, Cyprus and Turkey join
- Albania, Andorra, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Holy See, Russia, Macedonia join - Call for national qualifications frameworks - Doctoral-level qualifications added to bachelor and masters level in Bologna Process
- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine join - European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance, including plans for a register for quality assurance agencies, suggested, plus a framework for qualifications
Fourth Convention of the European University Association, Lisbon, Portugal
Launch conference forthe Lifelong Learning Programme 2007-13, Berlin, Germany
Stocktaking meeting to look at awarding and recognition of joint degrees, flexible learning paths and recognition of prior learning. It will consider the future of the process after 2010
Conference under the German presidency of the European Union debating the results of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System for vocational education and training consultation, Munich
Second European Quality Assurance Forum Implementing and Using Quality Assurance: Strategy and Practice , Rome.
Deadline for creating a European HEA