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EUROPE
EU: The future of Bologna
As in other regions of the world, European higher education is in the throes of a major transformation. The Bologna declaration of 1999 triggered wide-scale reform across the continent. Over the past few years, not only has the introduction of new degree structures taken centre stage but a range of other European and national higher education and research issues has also found synergies with the Bologna reforms to create possibly the most potent change process ever experienced on the continent.

Scepticism and apathy have nevertheless been widespread reactions to the Bologna process – both within and outside Europe. Yet as 2010 draws nearer, it is clear the process has proved by any standards to be an extraordinary success. Never before has a project as ambitious as the harmonisation of significant features of higher education systems across a major world region been attempted let alone achieved.

Today, not only do governments across 46 European countries embrace a common agenda for higher education development, but institutions and students are also fully committed. Part of the explanation for this consensus is the voluntary nature of the process – with no international treaty or European legislation.

No government feels threatened by a voluntary agreement to implement actions that are essentially common sense responses to a changing environment. And even the most traditional and conservative universities recognise they cannot hold back the waves of today's fast-evolving society. Students also see that higher education systems could and should do more to support them, and therefore have acted with consistent intelligence to influence the Bologna agenda.

Despite these extraordinary successes, there is much more to be done if a European higher education area is to become a meaningful reality beyond 2010. It is a mistaken view of Bologna that the process is concerned only with technical matters: in reality Bologna implies a profound shift in education philosophy and practice – and it is here that attention needs to focus on the future.

Indeed, the most significant purpose of Bologna is to respond to new societal needs by moving from a system of teacher-driven provision towards a student-centred concept. In a post-Bologna world, no longer will higher education be essentially a matter of professors transmitting knowledge; instead the reforms are laying the foundations for a system that responds to a growing variety of student needs within a framework of lifelong education.

Many higher education institutions are beginning to realise that the curriculum reform brought about through Bologna implies a radical new approach: thinking first about the outcomes that students require rather than the inputs that professors deliver. The Bologna ‘tool set’ – which includes a European credit system based on student workload and learning outcomes, a diploma supplement to describe clearly the outcomes of learning, and national and European qualifications frameworks to help clarify the levels and purposes of qualifications – can help support this shift towards student-centred learning. But these elements should not be seen as goals in themselves.

It is also vitally important to consider the increasing pressure on institutions: first, there is the pressure to increase and widen participation – primarily a result of the structural shift of economic activity in Europe in response to globalisation – while equally important is the fact that demography is set to have a major impact beyond 2010. As European nations compete as centres for innovation and knowledge, higher education must adapt to produce the large number of highly skilled graduates needed to sustain such a knowledge economy.

With ageing populations and shrinking younger generations, significant development of lifelong provision will become a necessity rather than a luxury. Large numbers of immigrants, including skilled workers and talented students, will also be needed to underpin and sustain Europe's future. Higher education institutions therefore need to take the opportunity of today's reforms to respond to these challenges for tomorrow.

One of the most significant potential stumbling blocks is that there is no clarity about where the investment for this future is to come from. In the past, European higher education has been predominantly funded by the public purse. Yet, despite the increasing demands, governments are signalling that institutions should no longer expect public investment to ensure their needs are met.

Paradoxically, as public money decreases, institutions are also required to gather more and more data to account for their diminishing expenditure of public money. The past decade has seen not only an inexorable rise in quality assurance systems (with both positive and negative impact), but also an increasing emphasis on benchmarking and audits of all kinds. New rankings and classifications are constantly being developed by all sorts of bodies – some trustworthy, others opportunistic – to the point where they are becoming an established feature of the higher education landscape.

But what will be the impact of this cultural shift towards comparing and ranking performance? Higher education by its nature inevitably deals with risk, uncertainty, creativity and innovation – characteristics that are not susceptible to the type of measurement typically used to develop rankings and classifications.

Can the acts of challenging accepted ideas and working creatively really be captured by standardised indicators? Or is there a danger of measuring, assessing and judging what can be measured, assessed and judged, but failing to capture essential processes involved in learning, teaching and research? Whatever the answers may be, there is a significant risk that by the time these questions are addressed seriously, it will be too late to change path.

Finally, it is a striking aspect of the new reality for higher education that the challenges ahead cannot be contained within geographic boundaries. Although too little acknowledged, it has been of enormous benefit to European countries to start addressing these challenges together. Increasingly higher education issues will move forward globally, making use of new technologies and accessible research.

Higher education institutions therefore need to take the lead in establishing appropriate frameworks for policy developments – taking forward the positive dynamic the Bologna process has launched.

*David Crosier is programme development director with the European University Association.
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