GREECE: Bologna under attack

Education Ministers from 46 countries in Europe will meet in Vienna this week to mark the 10th anniversary of the Bologna Agreement, which proposed a European Higher Education Area where students and graduates could move freely between countries using prior qualifications in one country as acceptable entry requirements for further study in another.

The Bologna process whose main guiding document is the Bologna declaration was adopted in 1999 by 29 European countries that agreed on the principal aims:

* Adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees, in other words, countries should adopt common terminology and standards.
*Adoption of a system essentially based on two main cycles, undergraduate and graduate. Access to the second cycle would require successful completion of the first cycle lasting a minimum of three years.

The degree awarded after the first cycle should also be relevant to the European labour market as an appropriate level of qualification. The second cycle should lead to the master and/or doctorate degree, as was the case in many European countries.

Later, the Bergen meeting produced a three-cycle framework of qualifications: a bachelor's degree for a three-year first degree, a masters for a subsequent study, and a doctorate for a degree that made "a contribution through original research that extends the frontier of knowledge by developing a substantial body of work".

The Bologna declaration was followed by biennial reforms, first by the Prague communiqué of 2001, the Berlin communiqué of 2003, and the Bergen communiqué of 2005. In 2007, the 5th Ministerial Conference took place in London and produced the London communiqué while the most recent was the 6th Ministerial Conference in Leuven in Belgium last year.

Undoubtedly a great deal of progress has been recorded in the last decade on higher education in Europe, in particular the promotion of mobility and lifelong learning instruments and programmes, as well as vocational education and training, adult learning, innovation and creativity, and the dissemination and exploitation of results.

Although the process is not an EU initiative, it is actively supported by the EU and is closely connected with EU policies and programmes. It does, however, go far beyond the EU borders and is part of a broader effort to make Europe a significant competitor to the best education systems in the world, and particularly the United States and Asia.

The EU actively supports a large number of measures calculated to improve the content and practices of higher education institutions, not only among the 27 member states but also the neighbouring countries.

It also promotes the modernisation agenda of universities through implementation of the 7th EU Framework Programme for Research and the Competitive and Innovation Programme, as well as making available structural funds and loans from the European Investment Bank.

Not everyone, however, is enamoured with the Bologna declaration and some education experts do not hesitate to describe the Bologna process as a neo-liberal attempt to impose the logic of the marketplace on higher education and promote it as a commodity.

Detractors of Bologna claim the process failed to achieve the agreed goals for improved mobility. The pressure to finish studies in a "regular amount of time" militates against staying abroad and the rigidity of the studies has impeded the desired mobility between universities.

The three-cycle structure has led to greater social selection and constriction of individuality. The bachelor programme is designed to provide a precarious workforce while students, and particularly women, find it difficult to get access to the masters and PhD degree programmes.

Critics also claim that university autonomy is restricted, free education is replaced by 'efficiency' and 'achievement' principles eventually lead to a lower educated workforce.

Instead of providing solutions for the chronic under-funding of universities, institutions are told to open up to private financing with a consequent loss of independence and direct influence by private firms on teaching and research.

The introduction of, or increase in, tuition fees, managerial concepts and a lack of democracy within the university system are an obvious symptom suggesting supporters of Bologna perceive education as only producing a workforce dictated by the market.

Accordingly, opponents will also gather in Vienna during the Ministerial Conference for a mass counter-conference to protest against what they see as a sell-out of higher education to capital and its subordination to a competitive market.

Large numbers of native Austrian students and lecturers are expected to march together with fellow campaigners from all over Europe. They will be joined by trade union members and activists from outside the universities to place the protest in a wider economic and social context.

The organisers are calling on the participants to march peacefully and block the streets of Vienna on Wednesday to make the visit of the ministers coming with their sparkling limousines to the conference very difficult.

They have appealed, however, for self-restraint and instruct participating people to avoid conflict with the police at all costs even if they are provoked.

They say the aim is to bring those responsible for the deterioration of universities closer to the current situation and help them experience the reality of entry restrictions.

"After 10 years without any kind of participatory process, disregard for democratic decision-making and the forcing through of legislation on the basis of the Bologna reform strategy papers without democratic legitimisation , it is unacceptable that ministers for education and self-proclaimed experts raise their glasses to the current situation at our universities," the organisers claimed in a statement.

The alternative summit will not restrict itself only to demonstrations, marches and civil disobedience to publicise its opposition to the Bologna process. A number of events, workshops, and panels will be available as well as discussions groups that will analyse the existing education system and discuss alternatives.