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New momentum and energy behind Bologna
For many years education researchers have become familiarised with conferences on the educational philosophies of eminent thinkers, such as Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, John Dewey, Susan Isaacs, Jurgen Habermas, etc.

Recently the Romanian Ministry of National Education organised the second research conference on the Bologna process’ ‘philosophy’, or rather its search for a philosophy. So far the Bologna process has been a political process whose philosophical underpinnings have not been clear.

Undoubtedly, Bologna has achieved significant success in its plans for an unprecedented higher education reform on a regional scale. Beginning in 1999 with an initial 29 signatories, this pan-European project has quickly expanded to 47 countries and resulted in the establishment of the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA, in 2010.

However, having realised the ‘low tide’ of the Bologna process and declining commitments of some member countries after the launch of the EHEA, the Romanian Ministry of Education, with financial support from the European Social Fund, has been actively seeking to build a new momentum by raising researchers’ voices and creating a dialogue between researchers and policymakers from EHEA countries.

The Future of Higher Education – Bologna Process Researchers’ Conference” was the title of this second conference. Following the success of the first in 2011, Romania organised the second on 24-26 November 2014 to bring together a large group of established and emerging higher education scholars from Europe and beyond to share their research on various aspects of regional structural reform.

The Bologna process may mean different things to different countries and people even within the EHEA. In his short and sharp opening speech, the Romanian Minister, Remus Pricopie, remarked that “the Bologna process is not about creating a fixed set of international standards, but is a complex process of structural changes”.

From a slightly different viewpoint, the Armenian Minister of Education and Science, Armen Ashotyan, contended that the Bologna process, especially the establishment of the EHEA, aims to “create and translate common values of Europe to tackle the challenges of humanity”.

He further asserted that “with 19 non-EU higher education systems, the Bologna process is not only an EU project, but a European project”. Two main policy aims embedded in this European project are to create European-minded citizens committed to the concept of European culture and values and to advance European integration and economic growth via a single market (including labour mobility).

Higher education is viewed as essential to mediate these two underlying objectives.

What is new in the second conference?

The conference heard more than 50 contributions in nine thematic sessions, including internationalisation; finance and governance; excellence and diversification of higher education institutions’ missions; teaching, learning and student engagment; social dimension-equity; education, research and innovation; quality assurance; the impacts of the Bologna process on EHEA and beyond; and evidence-based policies in higher education: data analytics, impact assessment and reporting.

Some of these themes have more direct references to the Bologna aims than others. For example, while the Bologna process focused on quality assurance and mobility, it made little reference to the “excellence and rankings of universities” as addressed during the conference.

The second conference also discussed several themes which were absent in the first, such as doctoral education as a bridge between higher education and research, recognition of qualifications across education systems and the impacts of Bologna on other regions around the world, which will, in turn, affect the future activities of the EHEA in terms of international mobility, research and its excellence mission.

The conference brought together some 160 researchers, not only from different countries but also different disciplinary backgrounds. Researchers from as far afield as Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Israel and North America also joined the event to make their contribution from the point of view of ‘outsiders’.

The thematic coordinators included, among others, the former World Bank global tertiary education expert Jamil Salmi, who, in the past 20 years, has provided policy and technical advice on higher education reform to the governments of more than 90 countries around the world.

Other thematic coordinators have engaged in various research studies on the Bologna process. Some of them are considered to be ‘Bologna process architects’, such as Sjur Bergan and Marzia Foroni; while others are involved in teaching and learning environments at different universities, such as Liviu Matei, Manja Klemencic; and Paul Ashwin.

To a large extent the organiser’s choice of themes and coordinators-convenors-editors shaped the profile of the conference. It seems that the organisers brought together a range of expertise and visions for European higher education in an attempt to devise different pathways for impacting policymaking, and different processes for engaging with policymakers, interest groups such as student unions and universities associations, and the public at local, national and international levels.

Voice of the host

Being a full member of the Bologna process from the very beginning, Romania has a vested interest in taking it forward and marking its active participation in shaping the EHEA. As the host of the 2012 Bologna Ministerial Meeting and the Bologna Policy Forum, Romania was among the first countries to highlight the need for policymakers to draw more strongly on research.

The initial aim of the first conference was twofold: to collect theoretical research on the Bologna process and gather case studies about implementation at national level, with a special focus on Romanian structural reform in higher education.

Former president, Emil Constantinescu, shared his reflection on why Romania hosted the conference: “After over 20 years under the dictatorship regime, we are very pleased to create a space for researchers to raise their voice and contribute to policymaking.”

Bologna is thus seen as an opportunity to enhance academic freedom and renovate the country’s higher education system as a whole. Seven years after joining the European Union, Romania is also strongly motivated to address and overcome its own systemic challenges.

In her paper, Professor Simona Sava from the West University of Timisoara, Romania, painted a picture of the reality of the Romanian higher education system, which is characterised as the most socially exclusive system in Europe, with only a 20.4% participation rate in 2011 – one of the lowest rates in Europe – and a target of 26.7% by 2020, far below the benchmark of 40% in the European Union.

This reality has also provided an impetus for local researchers to address the problems and underlying causes of insufficient access and create a scientific basis for identifying solutions. Thus the desire to host the conference may be in large part due to Romania’s own internal issues.

New momentum

The achievements of the Bologna process are undoubtedly very significant, although many projects are still works-in-progress. None of the other regions in the world has so far achieved structural reform or even policy cooperation on such a large scale. Bologna may not be the only way to reform higher education, but it has provided inspiration for how a regional reform can be initiated, coordinated and implemented.

The discussions in and outside the conference room certainly generated new energy and momentum among researchers and practitioners who care for the future of Bologna.

It is even more encouraging to hear about the success of the two-volume publication resulting from the first conference European Higher Education at the Crossroads – between the Bologna Process and National Reforms, which was not only presented at the Bologna Ministerial Meeting in 2012, but also was one of the top 25% most downloaded eBooks in the Springer eBook collections in 2013, with some 18,000 downloads since the online version was first published in March 2012.

The second conference will also result in a two-volume publication which will be launched at the Bologna Ministerial Meeting in May 2015. At the time of writing, a third conference is already in the pipeline. It is vital to support the Bologna Process Researchers’ Conference so that it can establish a profile and make a robust impact on the political process.

As a contributor, I came back from the conference with some golden words of wisdom: the political impact of scholarly work and of researchers lies in their ability to perform as skilled, but ‘humble’ expert advisors because the role of recommending reform to politicians should not be confused with the role of the politician.

* Que Anh Dang is a Marie Curie Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, UK. Her current research project is part of the European project Universities in the Knowledge Economy – UNIKE. Email: qa.dang@bristol.ac.uk
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