The ninth Bologna Process ministerial meeting, hosted by the Armenian government, was held recently in the capital city of Yerevan, in conjunction with the fourth Bologna Policy Forum of interested third countries. In between being feasted in effervescent Armenian style, the ministerial delegations had to work for 24 hours to sign off a communiqué confirming their decisions and setting the work programme agenda to be completed by the next ministerial meeting in France in 2018.
The conventional wisdom is that Bologna no longer interests ministers and that its business can be left to technocrats and stakeholders. Of the 48 Bologna ministerial delegations present, about 20 were headed by civil servants or university rectors, rather than ministers. But it was ministers who were needed to resolve a diplomatic dilemma.
The Russian Federation was there in full panoply with its minister to support the admission of Belarus to the European Higher Education Area. The topic does raise some questions. The Belarus government decides, for example, which students can study abroad.
For months there have been behind the scenes moves supporting the Belarus candidacy. The Bologna Follow-up Group has well-placed officials and sympathetic chairs who believe that doors should be opened to authoritarian regimes and fragile states. They argue that the desire of governments to improve their higher education systems means that Bologna’s experience and technical know-how provide bargaining power and a chance to transmit democratic values.
It was a dramatic diplomatic moment at Yerevan when Norway, leading the bargaining on a deal for Belarus’ conditional membership, secured agreement. Belarus is admitted conditional to implementing structural reforms in quality assurance and other areas in time for the 2018 ministerial conference, along with other reforms in areas such as facilitating staff and student mobility.
Whether or not Belarus accepts help to achieve these goals, its progress will be monitored and evaluated at the next Bologna meeting.
That commitment has a significance beyond Belarus. For the first time, the Bologna Process distinguishes between members deemed to be satisfactory and unsatisfactory. The countries that, in the words of the communiqué, undermine “the functioning and credibility of the whole EHEA” may be excluded from reputational rewards at the next conference.
As well as approving some revised instruments for recognition and quality assurance and better support of professional higher education, the communiqué is in favour of automatic recognition of degrees from EHEA countries by Bologna members.
Pressure to use Bologna as a platform to enhance learning is also reflected in the communiqué. Bologna ministers have agreed that academic and other practitioners should be involved in the Bologna work programmes.
In the corridors around the meeting, that was welcomed. Several junior members of delegations from the Bologna periphery (and from Belarus) told me how much their personal and professional position has been strengthened by access to Bologna’s cross-national networks.
By sticking to the Bologna principle of working for compatibility rather than uniformity, Armenia hands over to France a process that has life in it yet.
Anne Corbett is an associate of the London School of Economics and author of Universities and the Europe of Knowledge (2005).