Growing respect for the Bologna process

I find it intriguing that the Bologna process is not in political trouble.

Some of the participants in the Bologna ministerial meeting in Bucharest last April were muttering that the process of building a European Higher Education Area was imploding after a decade. And as for those active in European politics and policy-making: they see Bologna and higher education in general as a poor relation in the European policy sphere.

But as the debt crisis has hit Europe, and Greeks and Spaniards and Italians are made politically fragile by austerity under European Union (EU) rules, it may be that the European tide is on the turn, and that the qualities of Bologna-style governance in creating a common area by national consensus are more widely recognised.

Certainly the main line of debate on the EU’s future suggests that the economic crisis is forcibly pushing EU integration towards a federal state. Monetary union is now judged to be unsustainable without fiscal union, while fiscal union requires banking union and economic union.

This renews calls for a new democratic settlement, through EU political union. That is widely interpreted as meaning more integrated EU governance and a transfer of swathes of sovereignty to the EU. The German foreign minister recently presented that case for political union under the institutions of the EU. The European Parliament would exercise democratic control at some expense to national parliaments.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants political union in a gentler, more incremental, form. But since the quid pro quo for reform is that Greece has to behave ‘better’, the issue of saving the euro zone takes precedence. However, there are small signs that the crisis is helping the emergence of an approach to political union that rests on trusted institutions.

One of the savviest of the European think-tanks, Policy Network, recently turned the political union argument around. It conceptualises political union as a means to give national states a ‘truly’ European dimension, and not as an end in a federal state.

Starting from the inescapable evidence that the people of Europe remain attached to national government and suspicious, if not hostile, to European government, Policy Network’s Olaf Cramme and the London School of Economic’s Sara Hobolt have begun a campaign for a new policy-making focus on the political, cultural and constitutional ramifications of bringing European countries closer together politically.

Back to Bologna

Which brings us back to the Bologna process.

Bologna has been a classic case of using a process to reach only a vaguely predetermined end: a European Higher Education Area that will be compatible and comparable so as to encourage academic mobility and global recognition and to provide incentives for higher education both to preserve quality and to adapt to a changing economy.

Its original participants chose the way of intergovernmentalism or political consensus, rather than the EU law, as used for the Single Market and the Schengen area of free movement.

Most of them knew from the beginning that they could not manage on their own, and would need not only university stakeholders but also the involvement of the European Commission with its expertise and financial resources.

At that stage France and the UK refused. So the process took time to settle in to its present form, with 47 participants, eight stakeholders with higher education interests at European level, and the commission as a special member. But it did. And it has now expanded into a global policy dialogue with the Bologna Policy Forum.

That a single member can veto a proposal under intergovernmental rules is deplored by those seeing European governance as mainly needing to ensure efficiency and acceptance of the rules of the market.

But for those who regard forms of integration as requiring political trust and respect for different national preferences, intergovernmentalism cannot be ignored. There is a 64-thousand-dollar question on the balance of efficiency and democracy, which on a smaller scale Bologna faces.

Its experience can show that just over a decade ago, higher education systems were struggling separately with how to finance and steer their much-expanded systems. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe that joined the EU in 2004 had a double whammy: they also had to restructure their states after communism.

What have become familiar Bologna structures, like the two-cycle degree system, were then exotically British and Irish. Quality assurance was almost unknown. Recognition was formalised through Council of Europe and UNESCO conventions but not made operational. Cooperation between universities, an article of faith for many decades, was still small scale and largely initiated by academics. Joint programmes were rare.

Cultural shift

Yet 12 years after the signing of the Bologna Declaration, and a decade after the EU’s heads of state and government signed up to a strategy for growth and competitivity for the EU with which Bologna is in tandem (the Lisbon 2000 Agenda, Europe 2020), there has been a cultural shift that has transformed the higher education map of Europe.

They now share a common language on frameworks while guarding some national or regional distinctions.

A report published for the last Bologna ministerial meeting, which draws on data from a range of relevant organisations – Eurydice, Eurostat, and the commission – is enlightening on degrees of change, and in particular on what has been achieved in the two issues that have occupied the Bologna process over the decade: the progress of the structural reform necessary to create a European Higher Education Area, and progress on the policy issues designed to make universities more open to the rapidly changing knowledge economy.

Examples are the integration of lifelong learning and part-time provision into higher education, and the recognition of prior learning.

Titled The European Higher Education Area in 2012: Bologna process implementation report, this publication shows that after a decade almost all of Europe has signed up to the major structural changes – with Russia, the largest Bologna country, excluded from the data.

In over half of the 47 Bologna countries, there has been a 90% take-up of the two-cycle bachelor-masters degree courses. Another quarter applies the Bologna cycles to the majority of courses.

But there is a real cultural divide as to whether bachelors degrees are seen as sufficient. England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Kazakhstan believe so. In the rest of Europe, used to long degrees, at least half – and in most countries, three-quarters – of students go on to a masters.

On the other hand, the knowledge economy issues designed to encourage universities to adapt to the fact that graduates are likely to need higher learning throughout their lives, re-divides Europe.

The core states in terms of procedures in place for the recognition of prior learning for access to higher education and for recognition of credits, are Britain, the Scandinavian countries, Germany, France and the Benelux countries, with Portugal as ever anxious to be part of core Europe in terms of education.

The periphery where countries so far have no truck with prior learning consists of Turkey, Ukraine and most of south-east Europe including Greece. But the tide is moving towards them.

Fees is yet another story. There are five Bologna countries that charge all students fees: England, Portugal (‘the oldest ally’), and three of the European borderlands, which happen to be contiguous: Turkey, Georgia and Armenia.

The plurality of preferences is obvious. But so is the shift to an acceptance of the Bologna structural framework and of the need to make universities more accepting of a wider, less conventional range of students. However, the way in which Bologna is governed on a day-to day basis is still relatively obscure. A closer knowledge of the European debate could have the advantage of sparking some questions about the political, cultural and constitutional ramifications underlying Bologna.

I conclude that both the Europeanists and the higher education world have something to learn from each other.

* Anne Corbett is a visiting fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her latest publication is “Lisbon and Education”, in The EU’s Lisbon Strategy: Evaluating success, understanding failure, edited by Paul Copeland and Dimitris Papadimitriou and published by Palgrave Macmillan 2012.


The Bologna Process promotes transparency and fairness both for the learner and the instructor. I've seen its effects first-hand.

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