EUROPE: Bologna doesn't have to kill diversity

Today, many people think the notion of diversity in higher education is under threat in Europe - that under the pressure of a pan-continental higher education area, the expansion of the English language as a means of instruction, and given the increasingly predominant view that the American research university model is some kind of apotheosis of modern knowledge production - some of what we value most about our institutions may disappear.

It is probably misleading to talk about systems becoming 'more' or 'less' diverse. Institutions and systems of higher education can be compared on a number of different axes, such as their missions, governance systems, their management systems, their financial independence, their degree structures, and so on.

At any given time, some of these dimensions may be experiencing convergence while others are experiencing divergence.

There are three central drivers acting on European universities with respect to institutional diversity. The first is the long-term after-effects of massification; the second is the gradual spread of a particular ideology around the proper accountability arrangements in higher education; and the third is globalisation.

Massification, engulfing the majority of school-leavers, has changed the nature of higher education, creating education that is less theoretical, more practical and more welcoming of non-traditional students. It has led to the establishment of institutions in smaller, more remote communities, and the exploitation of delivery by new technologies.

Gradually this has led to more diverse higher education systems in terms of students, programmes and institutional types.

More recently, mostly in former Eastern Bloc countries, massification has been achieved in part through private money. These institutions are generally smaller than their public sector counterparts and mostly do not attempt to cater to the full range of fields of study. They have led the charge in providing access in remote areas and many of them have raised the standard of education and introduced real innovation.

A tendency throughout the world to looser formal relationships between governments and institutions has created the space for institutions to strike out on their own and innovate, thus increasing diversity. But at the same time, the accompanying increased target-setting and data gathering has tended to have a homogenising effect because governments, by and large, have been pretty ham-fisted about the kinds of targets and incentives they put in front of institutions.

Targets have been set without much in the way of understanding how to preserve and expand institutional diversity: rather, they have tended to value certain types of outputs - notably research - which tend to decrease diversity.

We define quality in terms of research, and by turning it into a criteria of excellence, we accentuate the phenomenon of academic drift, where institutions jostle with one another in order to be more research-intensive.

This phenomenon, which is partly reflected in and partly accentuated by more global phenomena like the emergence of academic rankings of world-class universities, is undoubtedly contributing to an institutional monoculture.

But perhaps the more obvious aspect of globalisation than global rankings is the growth of trans-border education. The increasing interconnectedness of global economic life has spurred a massive wave of students taking advantage of education in a foreign country.

Students who leave for foreign institutions experience more choices. Students at institutions who receive foreign students benefit from the experience of being exposed to a more diverse student body.

To attract these students, institutions are creating all sorts of new institutional alliances, joint programmes and other forms of institutional collaboration.

One of the things that policy-makers have realised over the past two decades is that mobility between countries is a very tricky thing to manage. So that students and institutions can have maximum flexibility to move and to create new joint programmes there is a huge education substructure which lies beneath the university which needs to be harmonised to a significant degree: things that 20 years ago would have seemed insignificant and uninteresting, like credits, degree structures and diplomas.

Only once these are harmonised can mobility and transferability become a reality. This means, of course, that an administrative level, institutions and systems are finding once again that they need to harmonise some aspects of their operations in order to diversify in others.

It is worth asking if there is anything special about Europe's reaction to these three drivers that distinguishes its reactions from those of institutions in similar positions in North America or Asia.

In terms of massification? No, Europe's path, its success and failures, are pretty typical. The pressures associated with entrepreneurialism in universities are very similar around the world; the difficulties felt in Europe about this are very similar to those in Asia, for instance.

In terms of accountability regimes? Europe's reaction is somewhat different to North America's, because there the shift to what Europeans call 'New Public Management' in universities happened a long time ago. But in Asia, again, many of the same kinds of difficulties and pressures are being felt.

Globalisation? The effects of globalisation and in particular trans-border education are being felt everywhere, but Europe's reaction is notable because of the Bologna process.

There is no doubt that Bologna makes Europe's diversification dilemma more acute than elsewhere. Our three key factors are everywhere, but only Europe has embraced the implications of globalisation so totally. Only Europe has Bologna.

Bologna's effects on institutional diversity came through two vectors. The first was direct, through the standardisation of degree programmes, credits and the like - the infrastructure that made mobility possible. But the second was indirect, as some national governments used Bologna as a Trojan horse to pursue reforms that were unrelated to the initial purpose of Bologna.

These, funnily enough, often focused on increasing the incentives for institutional entrepreneurialism or new accountability arrangements - precisely the drivers of change the world over.

Those drivers have both positive and negative consequences for diversity, so to say that Bologna is inimical to diversity is quite wrong. But there is a vitally important aspect of diversity in higher education that has come under threat from Bologna, and that is 'diversity in policy-making'.

This pan-European issue seems quite simply to be crowding out some important policy work at the local-national level, with the result that some countries seem to have difficulty making policy on higher education in areas that are not related to Bologna.

If this is true it cannot be a good thing. Just because an issue does not have a European dimension does not mean it is unimportant.

So I wonder sometimes if the time is approaching when it would be better for Europe to simply stop talking about Bologna. I say this as someone who admires Bologna and thinks that the rest of the world can learn some important things from the Bologna experience.

Bologna should not be killed off, nor its important gains reversed. Work on consolidating the process should continue. Just declare victory and go home. And then find some new things to discuss - preferably at a national, rather than a European, level.

The effects of massification, accountability structures and globalisation are all double-edged swords. In some respects, they encourage diversification while in others they encourage homogeneity. If we look closely at each of the three factors, we find that in each instance, the group that sees the pressure heading towards harmonisation is academic staff while the group that sees the move towards diversification is students.

Think about it: the late-stage massification driver is all about giving students more institutional choices, but results in more harmonised managerial structures and metrics. The globalisation driver, too, is about increasing institutional choice and programme diversity for students, but results in more harmonised curriculum and degree programmes for staff, plus the tedious burden of modularisation in order to provide students with these choices.

The accountability driver is a bit more complicated as students do not feel it directly, but it is basically an enabling mechanism for administrations to diversify while at the same time subjecting them to increasingly harmonised accountability criteria.

Higher education has changed from being like an economy of shopkeepers to an economy of hypermarkets. Consumer choice and convenience has increased substantially, but tremendous amounts of behind-the-scenes standardisation in fields like logistics are required to make it work and the life of the individual food worker or grocer has been homogenised.

Not everyone likes hypermarkets, but the economic logic of the new model is ineluctable. Few systems, few institutions can stand apart from it. The small shopkeeper option might still be available if one is providing exceptional quality in education - Oxford, perhaps, or l'École national d'administration.

In that case, it might be possible to stand apart from the hypermarchés and retain an identity as a small retailer. But for the mass of institutions, this will not be the case.

* Alex Usher is president of Higher Education Strategy Associates (formerly known as EPI Canada) and editor-in-chief of Global Higher Education Strategy Monitor. This is an abridged version of his plenary speech to the European University Association's Annual Conference in Palermo, Italy, on 22 October, on 'Diversities and Communalities - The changing face of Europe's universities'