US: America and the Bologna Club

The Bologna process has sufficient momentum to become the dominant global higher education model within the next two decades, according to a report released last week by the US Institute for Higher Education Policy. The report calls on American universities and colleges to take careful note of what is happening across Europe as a result of Bologna and implies it could be time for sweeping changes in the US as well. The 200-page report, The Bologna Club: What US higher education can learn from a decade of European reconstruction, says that in terms of crossing geographic and language boundaries, "let alone turning ancient higher education systems on their heads", the Bologna process is the most far-reaching and ambitious reform of higher education ever undertaken. Not only that, the core features of Bologna "have sufficient momentum to become the dominant global higher education model within the next two decades and Americans had better listen up".

The report was prepared by Clifford Adelman, a senior associate with the institute. Adelman notes that since 1999, 46 European countries have been engaged in reconstructing their higher education systems to bring about a greater degree of "convergence, or common reference points, and operating procedures to create a European Higher Education Area".

He says the voluntary undertaking, a logical extension of the process of European integration that has been deepening since 1950 - as well as a cultivation of seedlings of change in higher education that were planted in the 1990s - affects 4,000 institutions and 16 million students, an enterprise comparable to the size and scope of higher education in the United States.

When these national higher education systems work with the same reference points, they produce a "zone of mutual trust" that permits recognition of credentials across borders and significant international mobility for their students, Adelman says. "Everyone is singing in the same key, though not necessarily with the same tune."

His report identifies student learning outcomes set in qualification frameworks and their relationship to credits and curriculum reform, plus the construction of new paths to student participation in higher education and the reflection of all of this in diploma supplements, as being highly relevant to the challenges facing American higher education.

It goes on to make concrete suggestions for change with "all of them following a student-centred story line of accountability", including:

* developing detailed and public degree qualification frameworks for state higher education systems and in students' major fields for all institutions;
* revising the reference points and terms of the US credit system;
* introducing a new class of intermediate credentials;
* expanding dual-admissions "alliances" between community colleges and four-year institutions;
* developing and expanding "bridge" access programmes between stages of higher education;
* refining the US definition and treatment of part-time students; and
* developing a distinctive version of a diploma supplement that summarises individual student achievement.

Adelman says that by some interpretations under Bologna, the new master's degree is simply a repackaging of the old, longer bachelor's degree. "But in a global labour market, where labels count, this trend presents a major challenge to US students."

He says that while the Bologna process provides students with clear indications of what their paths through higher education will look like, what levels of knowledge and skills will qualify them for degree awards, and what their degrees mean, these "are road signs that are sorely lacking now [in America]" .

"Student 'success' does not mean merely that you have been awarded a degree but that you have learned something substantial along the way and that the world knows what you have learned, what skills you have mastered, and that you have the momentum to meet the rising knowledge content of the global economy," Adelman says.

"This public evidence does not derive from administering a test to a sample of students to prove that an institution 'adds value' to something that, at best, is indirectly taught. If your discipline, institution, and system have all established and publicly promulgated clear and discrete criteria for learning and thresholds of performance, that evidence, in itself, creates a powerful endorsement. When backed by a diploma supplement, you have a public warrantee."

For American public policymakers, the primary message to students translates into "worrying less about how many pieces of paper we pass out, how many credits qualify someone for those pieces of paper, and how long it takes a highly mobile student population to arrive in a graduation line, and more about the knowledge, the application of knowledge, the information identification and retrieval skills, and the degree of learning autonomy students acquire and take with them into economic and community life".

"That's something US policy makers and academic leaders of the 'get-it-over-with-and-get-it-over-with-fast' school (who then complain about what graduates don't know or can't do, and for whom persisting part-time students are a paradoxical anathema), should think very seriously about."

Adelman argues the development of the 'road signs' of qualification frameworks, revisions of the way the credit currency is established, and meaningful public documentation of learning, as demonstrated by the Bologna process, would have a "reconstructive effect" on US state systems and individual institutions.

"Some of our colleges, community colleges and universities will say that they already engage in some of the practices evident in the Bologna reconstruction. We certainly can point to the exemplary. But we do not engage in these exemplary practices systematically and we do not engage in them to scale", he says.

Nations outside the 'Bologna Process 46' have studied and begun to adapt some of the core features of European reconstruction, Adelman says. These countries are not doing this to imitate, rather to improve within their own traditions.

"In so doing, they link themselves to an emerging paradigm where the smart money is on cooperation and conversation. Joining the conversation is not such a bad idea."

The full report is available on the IHEP site