EUROPE: Bologna a success but state support needed

Progress in Europe's Bologna Process on improving coordination between higher education systems is facing fresh challenges as the reforms it sponsors throw up new differences in courses that need to be examined. A report from the EU education network Eurydice says that a close focus on individual country implementation of Bologna policies is required.

The report concludes that as Bologna harmonisation reforms continue "the need to intensify cooperation at European level is becoming ever more acute, with improved monitoring mechanisms being essential to assess the impact of reforms".

It stresses that progress has been made regarding the structural reform of higher education institutions across Europe but calls for a more holistic approach to make sure university standards and systems really do mesh from country to country.

"While much progress has been made in structural reform, the focus of attention and cooperation must now seek to combine national policy-making and system development with the content and reality of implementation in higher education institutions," the report states.

It stresses that success has been achieved in the first two cycles of the Bologna process that focused on the structure of bachelor and master programmes with 30 European countries now having chosen between adopting a three-year and four-year bachelor programme, with each respectively offering 180 ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System) credits or 240 ECTS credits.

The second cycle focused on master programmes and has seen the adoption of a two-year, 120 ECTS credit model dominate, having been adopted by 29 of the countries or regions studied by Eurydice.

According to Eurydice, implementation of cycles one and two have paved a strong foundation for the upcoming third stage of the process - harmonisation regarding doctoral programmes.

Even though the three-cycle structure has been introduced in all European countries and is almost fully operational, certain areas including medical studies, architecture and engineering programmes have not been fully incorporated.

The report says that now the basic structural work is well underway, more detailed work on course comparisons is needed: "It is certainly not the case that convergence is leading inevitably to uniformity in European higher education systems, even in terms of degree structures," it states.

"The main patterns of qualification structure have now been established and the key challenge ahead is to work on the profile of different qualifications so the learning outcomes of different Bologna qualifications are better understood, and the European higher education area is able to develop as an open, flexible and inclusive space."

In response, countries are now focusing on implementing the ECTS credit system which, as the report suggests, has had a speedy development through Bologna countries.

The greatest hurdle most institutes are facing is deciding what level of workload and learning outcomes merit what amount of credits. Since these grading variables are difficult to determine, most institutes are allocating credits based on contact hours and various other combinations, including assigned workload.

The report also considers the mobility of students between regional institutes but it says little research has been completed on tracking the movements of students between countries for the purpose of study: "Many countries still gather data only on nationality of students rather than tracking movement between countries for the purpose of study."

Since last September, Eurydice has been taken over by the European Union's Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, a wing of the European Commission, the EU executive.

*Additional reporting by Keith Nuthall (