Supporting human rights through higher education

There has been a widespread view that the Bologna Process, launched in 1999, can no longer attract political interest and that the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA, which came into existence in 2010 needs a fresh dynamic.

However, the outcome of the latest EHEA ministerial meeting which took place in Yerevan, Armenia, on 14-15 May, and of the accompanying Bologna Policy Forum which brings in neighbouring countries, is one of the most politically controversial decisions in the history of European higher education cooperation, and a possible pointer that the Bologna Process is backing transnational higher education cooperation to advance human rights.

Ministers of the 46 EHEA delegations present at Yerevan agreed to accept Belarus as a member of the EHEA. This brings total membership to 49 – up from 47 countries and the European Commission.

Belarus has long been the one blank area on the Bologna map, which stretches from the Atlantic to the Bering Straits, on account of its lack of respect for democratic values.

Although back in 1993 Belarus signed the European Cultural Convention of the Council of Europe and was admitted to education meetings, and had guest status at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, in 1997 it was suspended due to its infringements of media freedom, a murky history of the ‘disappeared’ and the continued exercise of the death penalty, with one person condemned as recently as this March.

Academic freedom

In the higher education sector a notable infringement of academic freedom took place in 2004 when Belarus expelled the European Humanities University, now located in Vilnius and classified as a Lithuanian university since 2006.

Still today Belarus students wishing to study abroad need a mobility permit approved at the highest level of government.

The case for Belarus’ EHEA membership made in the communiqué is that it has now committed “to making its higher education system and practice compatible with those of other EHEA countries”.

And thanks to the Norwegian delegation arguing for a last minute addition, it can be publicly seen that there is conditionality attached to the membership. The communiqué reads: “Ministers have asked the Bologna Follow-up Group to monitor progress and report to the next EHEA ministerial in 2018”.

The detail of the road map, while not made public in Yerevan, requires Belarus to conform to the EHEA values of public responsibility and academic freedom, and the use of Bologna tools of recognition, quality assurance and qualifications frameworks. It also specifies that students should be able to travel without ministerial permits. These developments are to be assisted by the Bologna Follow-up Group.

Critics are making the case that this is all a matter of European Union geopolitics: a reward for the Belarus government in Minsk acting as a bridge between Russia and the EU over Ukraine. But there are higher education factors related to the EHEA which go some way to explaining the decision as coherent with the aims and aspirations of the European Higher Education Area.

First is that for more than a decade the previously closed systems all over Europe have been driven to open up by common educational imperatives, and the Bologna Process has been able to offer practical support.

Often quite small groups of academics and others in the education system have successfully persuaded their governments that the dialogue and working methods on offer through the Bologna Process offer ways to improve such closed systems.

Russia became a member of the Bologna Process as long ago as 2003, and on the evidence of The European Higher Education Area in 2015: Bologna process implementation report is, in some respects, ahead of several of the original Bologna members in the use of Bologna tools, such as quality assurance.

Russia’s neighbours have followed it into Bologna. The most recent member is Kazakhstan, admitted in 2010. In that sense Belarus is following a general pattern, with evidence pointing to well-placed individuals in the higher education system strongly committed to reform and anxious to work with Bologna and the European Commission.

Promoting stability

A second reason for the EHEA opening up to Belarus relates to the political instability in the neighbourhood and a general view that higher education has a contribution to make.

The communiqué of the Bologna Policy Forum, consisting of EHEA ministers and in this case five delegations including Palestine and Kyrgystan, specifically commits to supporting students and staff from countries where the rule of law is not respected in the hope that they will eventually be able to help to strengthen the capacity of higher education institutions in their countries.

A third reason for accepting Belarus, and advanced unofficially, is that the road map serves as a precedent for Bologna policy-makers concerned that the Bologna instruments are not being effectively taken up in some instances.

The Bologna Process Implementation Report shows that while the Bologna three-cycle structure is widely implemented and the focus on quality assurance has given much more importance to teaching than accorded a decade ago, the Bologna Process aspiration to create systems which are compatible and comparable is still some way off.

There are varied understandings of the European credit transfer and accumulation system, of short-cycle degrees, and of what stage to try and enter the labour market. While the undergraduate-only degree is seen as being the right way to go in some countries, it is still seen as unacceptable in others. The social dimension and lifelong learning still get short shrift in many countries.

The problem for those with ambitions for the EHEA is that there are severe constraints on what a voluntary process like Bologna can do to make implementation more effective.

Ministers, pressed by the European Students’ Union among others, have given approval for more intensive monitoring over the next policy cycle, leaving the door open for the next ministerial meeting to choose a way to distinguish between the countries which have implemented Bologna and those who see their membership of the Process as merely good publicity.

A road map for the future

Armenia, one of the smallest countries in the EHEA and in an unstable area of the world, has bravely fulfilled its task of managing the EHEA secretariat and a conference to which it got a significant number of ministers in person.

It secured the attendance of all member countries bar its near neighbour Azerbaijan with whom it has no diplomatic relations. Even Turkey was present in a diplomatically difficult year marked by the commemoration of the Armenian genocide in 1915.

France now takes over. It will organise the next ministerial conference in 2018, exactly two decades on from the meeting at the Sorbonne which set the Bologna Process in motion.

Its effectiveness will be judged on how it implements the Yerevan communiqué’s other priorities through the EHEA’s institutional, expert and research networks: namely, a strong focus on teaching and learning, on fostering employability, on encouraging greater social inclusivity and on ensuring that the basic structural reforms of Bologna are better implemented.

In this it will be able to draw on the three policy measures adopted at Yerevan: on revised standards and guidelines for quality assurance, a European approach to quality assurance for joint programmes, and a revised users’ guide to the European credit transfer and accumulation system, or ECTS.

The full Yerevan Ministerial Communiqué and Fourth Bologna Policy Forum Statement, adopted at the ninth EHEA Ministerial Conference held on 14-15 May 2015 in Yerevan, Armenia can be seen on this link.

Anne Corbett is an Associate of the London School of Economics and Political Science.