Developing an education for the society we want

The European Higher Education Area is a teenager. It can reasonably hope its future will be longer than its past. As it reaches maturity, it needs to make crucial decisions based on imperfect information in a situation where societies and economies – as well as the climate – change faster than ever before.

Guesses about the uncertainties of the future cannot be based on the certainties of the past. These are dilemmas many teenagers face.

With the accession of Belarus, accompanied by a roadmap, the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA, now brings 48 countries together to work towards common goals. In spite of good progress, the Bologna Process Implementation Report shows that promises made are not always promises kept.

The purposes of reforms must be understood and the reforms implemented. Higher education knows that past achievement is an imperfect measure of future potential. Therefore the EHEA must look at what needs to be done better rather than at what has been done well.

Preparation for democracy

Higher education is not only about the kind of jobs we want but also about who and what we aim to be. Democracy is now a near-universal European aspiration. Practice does not always correspond to aspirations, but those who argue against democracy as a matter of principle are usually neither in government nor in mainstream politics.

Like higher education, democracy is more than institutions, laws and structures. These are essential, but they cannot function unless they are based on democratic culture – the attitudes and behaviours that make us able and willing to solve conflicts peacefully, respect human rights and live together in diverse societies.

Democratic culture is not like swimming or skiing: once you have learned it, you do not forget it. It is like learning a language: if you do not practise, you lose the ability. Education is essential to developing and maintaining democratic culture, and that responsibility extends to higher education.

Students cannot develop a culture of democracy unless they are able to practise it in universities and as citizens. Therefore, developing a framework for competences for democratic culture is part of the Council of Europe’s new Action Plan against violent extremism and radicalisation leading to terrorism.

Academic freedom, institutional autonomy and student and staff participation are essential to developing the critical thinking on which our societies depend. These fundamental values are also essential to academic quality.

They must be defended and developed not only in the face of obvious threats like the expulsion of students or dismissal of staff for political reasons, but also against more subtle challenges.

If a university outsources staff paid on an hourly basis to a company owned directly or indirectly by the university, does that institution in fact further the academic freedom and institutional autonomy that it will most likely defend as a matter of principle?

Preparation for the labour market

Europe has been through an economic crisis. That may be an optimistic statement: for many Europeans the crisis is not a thing of the past. Employment depends more on education qualifications than ever before, and higher education needs to become better at preparing students for a labour market that develops rapidly and unpredictably.

Education structures and practice must promote cooperation with the world of work: the private, for-profit sector but also the public and NGO sectors. Study programmes must integrate practice periods and give credit for non-traditional learning. Structures and regulations must be amended, and practice changed to take advantage of possibilities that the structures and the laws already offer.

Ministers have adopted a series of proposals, ranging from including short-cycle qualifications in the EHEA qualifications framework through encouraging entrepreneurship and tracking graduates’ progression on the labour market to providing better information to students and parents.


The EHEA is loosely organised. That has made it easier for each country to find its place and to develop ownership. It also makes it easier to fall prey to the temptation of implementing the EHEA à la carte. If the EHEA were to be nothing more than peer learning, would it still be the European Higher Education Area?

If we want to have more than a framework for non-committal cooperation, and if we want other regions to be inspired by the EHEA, we need to show that we take our own commitments seriously.

The EHEA must be able to discuss cases where the Implementation Report indicates that commitments are not being fulfilled. There is a real risk that uneven implementation of what are compatible structures on paper will mean we have no meaningful EHEA.

The phases of Bologna

The Bologna Process has developed through several phases:
  • • The first phase (1998-2001) launched the march towards the EHEA. It was exciting since ministers could focus their attention on setting goals.
  • • The second (2003-05) was one of development. It saw the adoption of the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area, or ESG – now revised at a recent conference in Yerevan in Armenia – and the qualifications framework, the first implementation report and the accession of 12 new countries. The EHEA became truly European.
  • • The third (2007-10) was one of consolidation. As 2010 drew nearer, attention focused on fulfilling commitments already undertaken.
  • • The fourth phase came with the establishment of the EHEA in 2010. The EHEA continues to develop, but there is diminishing political interest, higher education is affected by the financial crisis and there is considerable uncertainty as to how the EHEA should develop further.
It is too early to say whether the Yerevan conference of European Higher Education Area Ministers and the Bologna Policy Forum held in mid-May marks a new, fifth phase, but the discussions there give hope that the EHEA will help develop the kind of education we need for the kind of society we want.

Sjur Bergan is head of the Education Department, Directorate of Democratic Citizenship and Participation, Directorate General II Democracy, Council of Europe.