AUSTRALIA: Warnings of impending doom subside

It took seven years before an Australian government reacted to the transformation of European higher education that had begun in 1999. The response finally came early in 2006 and was framed as a sharp warning to Australia's vice-chancellors: Watch out! The then federal Education Minister Julie Bishop told university chiefs in no uncertain terms that they could lose tens of thousands of fee-paying foreign students to European institutions unless their universities adapted to the Bologna process.

If Australia was not aligned with Bologna developments, a significant proportion of the 32,000 Europeans then enrolled in Australian institutions could find other destinations more attractive, Bishop said. Similarly, if Asian countries or institutions chose to follow the Bologna reforms, Europe could become a more attractive destination for students who would otherwise have come to Australia.

The challenge was how to better fit Australia's frameworks with international standards and benchmarks while retaining a higher education sector that met domestic and international expectations of quality. Releasing a discussion paper on Bologna, Bishop said the process also had implications for European acceptance of Australian higher education awards and options for student mobility.

The paper, prepared by her department, said it was intended to stimulate debate but, although there was a flurry of media reporting at the time, almost nothing has been heard of Bologna since Bishop fired her warning shots. Her paper noted that compatibility with Bologna would closely align key features of the Australian higher education system with the university systems of European countries and would assist student movement between universities while boosting other types of engagement between Australian and European institutions.

In a 10-page response to Bishop and the departmental paper, vice-chancellors were frankly sceptical of the claims of impending doom unless Australia acted. They said it was first necessary to clearly define what ‘alignment’ meant in the Australian context and proposed that it should be ‘comparability’.

This would ensure that the diversity of the Australian education system could be maintained and would not infer standardisation – which was clearly an element implicit in harmonisation. Attempts to work more cooperatively with Europe should not include restructuring the Australian education system, the document stated.

"Acceptance of the meaning of aligning ourselves with Bologna is an important first step in the process of consultation... A fundamental precept of any possible future comparability with [Bologna] must be the strong features of Australia's higher education sector and should not be at the expense of the national system that has proven successful in developing and diversifying Australia's international student recruitment."

Then last November, the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard was swept from office – and Howard from his own seat as well. With the Labor Party now in power, Bishop's demands that universities take up the issues raised by her and the departmental paper have disappeared along with the Minister herself.

"Any sense of urgency that may have existed has dissipated with Julie Bishop now in Opposition," said Dr Glenn Withers, chief executive of the vice-chancellors association, Universities Australia. Withers noted that, coincidentally last November, his organisation had hosted a delegation from the European University Association to specifically discuss Bologna.

"This affirmed strongly how much Australian degree structures are reasonably close to the Bologna model, more so than some European university systems," he said. "Nevertheless, continuing to work with the developments of the Bologna process allows us to participate in developments in global higher education and learn from European activities. We also have a priority of maintaining diversity in Australian universities while enhancing our ability to link with Asia Pacific and American institutions as well as European universities."

Withers said vice-chancellors believed the small differences that did exist between Australian degree structures and the Bologna model had not inhibited universities from developing informal links with European counterparts, including student and academic exchanges, and research collaboration.

The paper prepared for Bishop, however, warned that although students and academics did move between Australia and Europe, and that Australian qualifications were recognised in Europe, impediments resulting from differences in systems and basic structures still existed. In particular, differing degree structures could make recognition of qualifications difficult while the absence of effective credit transfer arrangements meant students could not easily undertake portions of study in another country.

It said Australian universities could lose out to Europe in the lucrative overseas education market which was worth A$8 billion (US$7.4 billion) a year to Australian universities at the time – although this has now grown to more than $11 billion. Foreign students were likely to be attracted by the increasing use of English in many European universities at postgraduate level, the competitive fees and the potential access to the European labour market which was nearly 20 times the size of Australia's.

"The attractiveness of Europe relative to Australia is likely to be greater if Australia remains outside the Bologna tent," the paper said. Referring to the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), it highlighted the lack of a uniform national system of credits in Australia, saying this was a significant impediment to mobility.

To be "inside the tent", Australian compatibility at the minimum would entail a three-cycle structure with bachelor, masters and doctorate degrees. A Diploma Supplement, a credit system compatible with the ECTS and an accreditation-quality assurance framework meeting Bologna criteria would also be necessary.

Australia's one-year masters courses would need to be monitored because, while there was scope for a one-year masters within the Bologna structure, the paper said a two-year masters was likely to become the norm in most countries.

Withers, though, was confident that any problems arising from the differences that did exist could be resolved. Australia's major market in terms of international student movement was Asia and universities needed to be able to blend with what was happening to Asian institutions as well.

"Overall, we believe things are proceeding very well as far as Europe is concerned. It's a case of hastening slowly," he said.