MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE: Recognising the social dimension

An extraordinary Ministerial Anniversary Conference was co-hosted by Hungary and Austria last week in Budapest and Vienna to assess the achievements of the Bologna process and its contribution to enhancing the quality and the diversification of higher education in Europe.

Ministers in charge of higher education in Austria and Hungary invited their colleagues participating in the Bologna process from the other 44 countries, and the newly-accepted Kazakhstan, to assess the progress made towards the achievements of this unique partnership.

The declaration from the conference represents an unprecedented recognition of the social dimension within European higher education policy.

Following speeches and debates, they promised to step up their efforts to accomplish the reforms already underway. These are intended to enable students and staff to be mobile, to improve teaching and learning in higher education institutions, to enhance graduate employability, and to provide quality higher education for all.

In the conference declaration, the ministers outline how they must go about achieving these goals. More than ever before, they stress the importance of "the social dimension", describing its recognition as important to "provide equal opportunities to quality education".

The ministers also commit themselves to "working towards a more effective inclusion of higher education staff and students in the implementation and further development of the European Higher Education Ara".

In terms of financing universities, the ministers "reaffirm that higher education is a public responsibility". But while they promised to ensure higher education institutions had the necessary resources, they do not explicitly criticise the privatisation of universities.

Instead, they state that higher education should be funded "within a framework established and overseen by public authorities".

On a separate note, the ministers recognise the considerable global interest in the Bologna process and, in their declaration, they "look forward to intensifying (their) policy dialogue and cooperation with partners across the world".

Education International, which represent university staff, and the European Student Union or ESU, took part in the conference and each will take satisfaction from the ministers' acknowledgement of the need for policy-making processes that are more inclusive of the academic community.

The ESU advocated this in a declaration that was presented during the ministerial conference, along with encouraging recognition of the social dimension - also present in the ministers' own declaration.

But there are limitations on the potential significance of the ministers' words. The conference was only "a stocktaking" measure and was primarily intended to celebrate 10 years of Bologna. So there were no concrete decisions made but simply a sharing of ideas and clarifying of how the process can achieve its long-term goals.

Second, the Bologna process is not legally binding and the extent that announcements made are transmitted down to the domestic level is extremely variable. The commitments to implement social measures in higher education reform and achieve more student and staff participation in the decision-making processes were discussed at a meeting of the European education ministers' council meeting last month.

There the ministers settled binding decisions in the EU2020 strategy, which subordinate all education and scientific to the economic agenda of the European Union.

* Karl-Heinz Kloppisch Jr and Tino Brömme are correspondents of ESNA, the European Higher Education News Agency based in Berlin.