Bologna needs renewed focus

Over the past 15 years, the Bologna Process has turned into the most far-reaching reform the education community has ever experienced – creating a European space of university cooperation based on quality, openness and mutual trust: the European Higher Education Area.

Today, in Europe and across the globe, 'Bologna' continues to signify a highly ambitious, successful example of pan-European cooperation – one where the European Commission is playing an active part.

Instituted in 1999 as an intergovernmental process, now encompassing 47 European countries as well as the European Commission, with consultative stakeholder members, in most people's minds the Bologna Process is closely identified with the switch to the Bachelor-Masters-Doctorate model of higher education.

Highly contested at the time in some countries, these reforms are now reasonably well embedded, with some lingering exceptions.

By putting degree structures on a comparable basis, and making openness, trust and student mobility central to higher education, Bologna has seen a remarkable degree of pan-European cooperation to internationalise higher education, establishing an interlocking set of European tools and a common language for reforms: standards and guidelines for quality assurance, a common credit system and results integrated into a qualifications framework.

Supporting internationalisation

Supporting mobility and internationalisation is an objective we share in EU cooperation too – especially through our Erasmus+ mobility programme which has already provided some three million students with the opportunity to study or train in another European country. Another two million are set to benefit by 2020.

Erasmus and Bologna have been mutually reinforcing. The three-cycle structure and the European credit transfer and accumulation system, or ECTS, make mobility and recognition easier and spread a shared understanding of what quality higher education means.

Over time, the Bologna Process has thus become a successful brand, reflecting pan-European policy cooperation that improves the quality of higher education – and inspiring other regions of the world to try and replicate it.

Countries have had a dual incentive. On the one hand, the impetus for joining the Bologna Process has been rooted in the wish to bring about change and reform in higher education, domestically and internationally. On the other hand, being part of the Bologna Process is also about achieving international credibility for a country’s own higher education system.

However, in recent years, the emphasis in Bologna has shifted away from initially daring decisions to administrative implementation and maintenance. We seem to have lost ambition.

In addition, a closer analysis reveals that the changes brought about by the Bologna Process have been rather uneven, with disparities both within and between countries and regions. Although countries are moving in the same direction, they are doing so at widely varying pace.

The three-cycle system is not always used in a coherent way, particularly in the professions – for example, law, medicine or teacher training. ECTS credits are not always used consistently, showing, among other things, a lack of clarity about the different types and purposes of masters programmes, and student-centred learning remains underdeveloped.

We are only halfway towards the target that, by 2020, 20% of students will be mobile during their studies. Problems of recognition of foreign degrees persist: students (almost one in 10, according to one Bologna report) find they cannot continue their studies from bachelor degree in one country to masters in another, despite the – on paper, at least – comparable degree structure throughout the European Higher Education Area.

Graduates, too, often discover that they do not have the skills and competences they need for their future careers. Higher education is still not easily accessible for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. And the potential of digital technologies to transform learning and teaching has not yet been taken up everywhere.

In short, there has been remarkable progress, but much more needs to be done. We need to press on with reforming and internationalising our education systems.

Renewed conviction

The question we now need to answer is: what vision and goals can give the Bologna Process fresh momentum for the decade ahead, and what needs to be done to close the existing gaps in implementing reform?

The commitments we will make at the Ministerial Conference in Yerevan in the coming week will shape the reforms we must undertake to complete the European Higher Education Area.

I am convinced that we must strengthen the foundations of the Bologna Process by renewing the focus on its core reforms. This means renewing political ownership and conviction.

Policy-makers, academic staff and students must work together, within countries and across borders, to learn from each other and to identify and achieve measurable objectives. And we can do much more to ensure that efforts are more targeted at those countries that most urgently need reform.

Young people have been severely hit by the economic crisis in many countries. Education has a pivotal role to play in helping them find their place in society and in the labour market, and the Bologna Process must contribute to that.

Its continued development, especially the development of its social dimension, is essential for Europe to restore economic growth and job creation and to secure the future prosperity, well-being and sustainability of our higher education systems and societies.

The Bologna Process has created a space for dialogue and cooperation which reaches far beyond Europe – a dialogue not just about the technicalities of credit systems and quality assurance, but about the fundamental principles, such as freedom of expression, tolerance, freedom of research, free movement of students and staff, student involvement and the co-creation of learning.

These principles reflect the basic values on which European society is based – values which we need to promote and strengthen, now more than ever.

The Bologna Process will never solve all the challenges any country is facing. But the vision that ought to unite European policy-makers is that higher education should change our societies for the better.

The fine grain of the policies and approaches chosen to achieve this may vary, in a cultural and geographical space that reaches from Lisbon to Vladivostok. But with renewed ambition and commitment, Bologna will once again be centre stage, an engine for change, shaping the future of Europe.

Tibor Navracsics is European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. The 2015 Ministerial Conference and Fourth Bologna Policy Forum takes place in Yerevan, Armenia, on 14 and 15 May.