Much more needs to be done to harmonise Europe’s higher education system, according to a new report into the state of implementation of the Bologna Process across the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA.
This report provides strong evidence that quality assurance continues to be an area of dynamic evolution that has been spurred on through the Bologna Process and the development of the EHEA.
There is also evidence of progress in implementation of the European credit transfer and accumulation system, or ECTS, since 2012.
But in almost every other sphere the record of progress in the EHEA is patchy, the report found, with particularly disappointing lack of progress on widening access for under-represented groups within the population.
Tibor Navracsics, European commissioner responsible for education, culture, youth and sport, said: “Over the last three years, 47 countries, more than 4,000 higher education institutions and numerous stakeholder organisations have continued to adapt their higher education systems, making them more compatible, modernising degree structures and strengthening their quality assurance mechanisms. But this report makes it clear that more needs to be done.”
The report is a successor to the first Bologna Process Implementation Report (2012) and has been developed through collaboration between the Bologna Follow-up Group and Eurostat, Eurostudent and Eurydice.
It provides a snapshot of the state of implementation of the Bologna Process from various perspectives using data collected in the first half of 2014.
The Bologna Declaration was signed in 1999 by ministers responsible for higher education from 29 European countries, and set in motion a European cooperation process that has radically changed higher education.
Reforms have affected countries within and beyond Europe, and the number of official signatory countries has risen to 47.
“Although countries are moving in the same direction, they do so at widely varying pace. As a result, the foundations of the European Higher Education Area are not yet fully stable,” Navracsics says in the report’s introduction.
“In many countries, students and graduates still face obstacles in having their studies abroad recognised for work or further study. Graduates too often discover that they do not have the skills and competences they need for their future careers.
“Higher education is still not easily accessible for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Student-centred learning, based on carefully planned goals, remains underdeveloped. And the potential of digital technologies to transform learning and teaching has not yet been grasped everywhere,” he says.
The report found that at least 16 countries have made substantial progress in implementing national qualifications frameworks. However, at the other end of the scale, 10 countries have still not started implementation at programme and institution level, with some showing no progress since the 2012 implementation report.
Although the EHEA has evolved towards a more common and much more understandable structure of degrees, there is no single model of first-cycle, and there are large differences in the total workload of first and second qualifications, which may cause problems in recognition.
Steering and encouraging the use of learning outcomes in curriculum development has grown substantially. However, the use of learning outcomes in student assessment is much less widespread.
In the countries that struggle with a shift to student-centred learning, the most critical problems are a lack of recognition of the value of student evaluation of teaching, independent learning and the use of learning outcomes, the report says.
Recognition of foreign qualifications
In more than two thirds of countries, higher education institutions make the final decision on recognition of foreign qualifications, while recognition of credits gained abroad is fully in the hands of higher education institutions.
Nearly three quarters of qualifications from at least some of the EHEA countries are treated equally as national qualifications.
“This demonstrates that there is already some potential for working towards automatic recognition at system level in most EHEA countries,” the report says.
While information on internal quality assurance is necessarily limited, the findings indicate that the trend for higher education institutions to develop their own strategies for quality enhancement is spreading and increasing.
Equally the public accountability and transparency requirements in quality assurance systems are evolving, with a significant increase in the number of countries reporting that all institutions publish the outcomes of quality assurance evaluations, even when negative.
External quality assurance systems are now practically ubiquitous in the EHEA – a reality that is far different to when the Bologna Process was launched. The main issue is no longer whether or not a quality assurance system has been established, but rather whether the system is producing effective results and working in compliance with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area, or ESG.
One of the major trends and commitments made in the context of the Bologna Process is to open up the possibility for higher education institutions to be evaluated by foreign agencies, provided that these are working in full conformity with the ESG.
While there is evidence that higher education institutions are increasingly taking advantage of opportunities to work with agencies from other countries, national reforms in this area are slow-moving, the report says.
Equality of access
Within the EHEA, countries have committed to the goal that the student body should reflect the diversity of the populations and that the background of students should not have an impact on their participation in and attainment of higher education. But the analysis clearly shows that the goal of providing equal opportunities to high-quality higher education is far from being reached.
With regard to gender, some imbalances have reduced over time but nevertheless continue to exist in most countries and across the EHEA as a whole.
The greatest gender imbalances exist, however, between different fields of study. In some fields, such as teacher training or social services, men are strongly under-represented. In other fields, such as computing or engineering, women are strongly under-represented.
Policies aimed at achieving gender balance in higher education are therefore likely to be most effective if they take study-field-specific imbalances into account.
This data also shows very clearly that in nearly all countries an immigration background is negatively associated with higher education attainment. Similarly, the educational background of parents continues to have a strong impact on tertiary education attainment.
Despite a 2009 commitment to set “measurable targets for widening overall participation and increasing participation of under-represented groups in higher education, to be reached by the end of the [...] decade”, less than one in five systems have defined quantitative objectives with a reference to under-represented groups, the report says.
Higher education attainment levels are generally on the rise in the EHEA, yet many students still drop out of higher education without completing their studies. Available completion rates range from 48% to 88%.
Policy interventions to improve such performance tend to focus primarily on giving financial incentives to students to finish their studies on time. Providing specific guidance and support to those first-year students who are most likely to drop out of higher education is less widespread, the report says.
Space for dialogue
Navracsics highlighted the positive effect the Bologna Process has had in creating a “space for dialogue and cooperation which reaches far beyond Europe”.
He said this was a dialogue not just about the technicalities of credit systems and quality assurance, but about the fundamental principles – freedom of expression, tolerance, freedom of research, free movement of students and staff, student involvement and the co-creation of learning – that reflect the basic values on which European society is based.
“As we move towards the 20th anniversary of the Sorbonne Declaration, the Bologna Process must demonstrate its capacity to move forward on two interlinked tracks: ensuring the consistent implementation of reforms on the one hand and outlining the response of our universities and colleges to the challenges of the 21st century on the other,” the commissioner said.
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