A simplified recipe for Bologna

The reforms have caused rigidity and bloat. Stefan Kühl thinks a boiled-down approach is needed

July 23, 2015
Tagliatelle with bolognese sauce and glass of red wine

“Flexibility” within your degree programme – that was the main benefit promised to European students by those promoting the Bologna reforms. But this year’s Bologna Process ministerial conference in Yerevan, Armenia made it clearer than ever that flexibility has actually declined since the process began in 1999.

The primary reasons are the increased bureaucracy and the school-like regimentation of studies to which the implementation of the Bologna Declaration has given rise. One example is the imposition of module structures for all seminars, examinations and study phases. Another is the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, which was originally put forward as one possibility for study-credit transfer but is now the compulsory credit calculation method for all students.

The attribution of credit points for every individual study activity puts a great deal of strain on all parties. Every single hour of study must be planned in advance to ensure that the points associated with each of the various exams and modules “add up”. This complex logic becomes the only measure by which students’ completion of a study pathway is assessed: the academic substance of courses becomes neglected – I call this the “Sudoku Effect”.

All this bureaucratic machinery has only taken us further from international coordination than we were before 1999. That is because Bologna was in essence nothing more than an idea, which was formalised by every country and even every sub-national region in its own way. The evaluation report presented at the Yerevan conference revealed, for instance, that requirements for a bachelor’s degree across the continent vary from 120 to 240 ECTS points, making transfer between institutions with different thresholds virtually impossible. The number of hours of study required for one ECTS point also varies, as does the duration of a bachelor’s degree.

Even politicians, who still defended the implementation of the Bologna reforms in Yerevan, express their dissatisfaction with the bureaucratisation. But previous attempts at both federal and regional levels to address it – such as by reducing the number of examinations within modules or abolishing class registers – have addressed only the symptoms and not confronted the cause.

The problem is that fundamental reform of the Bologna Process is inherently impossible – as it is for all policies imposed on a Europe-wide scale. No single state, province or region is able to deviate from the common methodology. Too many countries have already agreed on a common procedure; so despite criticism further down the line, there’s no way back.

This standardisation of inefficient processes is known in the field of organisation research as “lock-in”. The most well-known example is the QWERTY keyboard layout, which was introduced in the 19th century to prevent typewriters from jamming by slowing typists but is retained even in modern computer keyboards.

My solution would be what I call “Bologna on a beer mat”. I would edit down the declaration to a single sentence: “Studying at a European university will consist of a two-tier study phase with an initial stage completed after three years.” Everything else would be left up to the universities to decide.

After all, this two-tier study system was the core idea of the original declaration, and it is the key to realising its aims of increasing student mobility and cutting dropout rates because it entails that studies interrupted after the third year do not count for nothing and can be built on at a later date – potentially in a different university or field.

Under my beer mat proposal, that is all anyone would be bound by. If states, countries or educational institutions wanted to make use of the module system or the ECTS, that would be their own choice. And they would have to face up to the consequences – instead of grumbling into their pint glasses about European policymakers.

Stefan Kühl is a professor of sociology at Bielefeld University in Germany. He is author of The Sudoku Effect: Universities in the Vicious Cycle of Bureaucracy (2014).

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Reader's comments (1)

As someone who experienced the Bologna Process experiment first hand, I feel it has done an amazing job! Even the ECTS, QA and Degree cycle to come to a unity was impossible given the diversity of Europe. America is quite excited by it...even want to emulate! However, as pointed out here, challenges remain. The Beer-mat proposal sounds intriguing.