Building an innovation culture via the Bologna Process

Innovation, entrepreneurship and competitiveness have never been far from the Bologna Process agenda. From their initial mention in the original 1999 Bologna Declaration to the 2015 Ministerial meeting in Yerevan, Armenia, innovation and Bologna’s continuing commitment to it have been underscored.

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In a 2014 Bologna Process Researchers’ Conference Report, the concept of ‘the third mission of education’ was raised. It seems that in addition to teaching and learning, a third mission for the university should be innovation, allowing universities to network ideas, concepts and best practice all in pursuit of the core goal of sustaining a knowledge economy with social values. In essence, the university as academic innovator, incubator and inclusive institution.

Savvy students and teaching innovation

How the Bologna Process can continue to function as an innovation engine is an important question. Within an international context of disruptive technologies, demographic shifts and globalised economies, the Process must recognise that students are becoming savvier – and more careful – about gauging the long-term value of a university education and are making major life decisions more cautiously.

Up to this point, the Bologna Process has helped universities worldwide to break new ground in educational delivery and this has appealed to these students.

The policy innovations advanced by Bologna have driven inventive changes in teaching and learning to make European universities more competitive and effective by encouraging the academic mobility of teachers and students, promoting student-centred learning, building a well-defined three-cycle model of higher education, creating a diploma supplement and supporting degree portability through a European Credit Transfer System or ECTS.

As it currently stands, the European Higher Education Area or EHEA, an internationally competitive region established by the Bologna Process in 2010 following its Ministerial Conference in Budapest and Vienna, is comprised of 48 countries. Other actors include the European Commission, along with eight consultative (non-voting) members who are stakeholders in European education policy.

What is perhaps most innovative – and remarkable – is that the original Bologna vision was to have countries participate on a voluntary, non-binding basis while also encouraging but not mandating inter-governmental cooperation. For the most part, given discordant trends resulting from the social, political and economic difficulties facing Europe over the past decade and a half, it is astonishing that the principle of voluntary participation still holds.

Now, we find ourselves in a period when Europe continues to experience significant challenges, including headwinds from a protracted financial crisis, a marked upsurge of populist, anti-establishment parties confronting European electorates and a resurgent nationalism.

For many, the Bologna Process continues to operate as a counterpoint, functioning as a source of unity and European identity, acting as, some proponents feel, a safe haven for policy innovation against the cacophony of more fractious forces demanding withdrawal from pledges to any kind of regulatory union or organisation.

The power of free movement

This concept of policy innovation has been particularly exemplified by two Bologna pillars – mobility and the social dimension. In the case of mobility, the Bologna Process has recognised that free movement is power and has encouraged the cross-border flow of human capital, goods, services, technology and labour.

It was thought that encouraging students to spend part of their university studies immersed in a new country would foster proficiencies in personal independence, coping within a new linguistic environment and adjusting to an unfamiliar culture, summoning and sharpening skills of creativity, reflection, adaptability and critical thinking.

Despite some obstacles, including over-complexities in financial and bureaucratic requirements, according to the latest Bologna Implementation Report in 2015, the number of mobile students continues to climb.

One example is from Spain where, in order to meet quality standards and aware of their commitments to the Bologna Process, universities have redesigned their English learning curriculum, keeping an eye on both European quality standards and innovative practice in teaching and learning methodologies used by other EHEA tertiary institutions. The aim is to strengthen language competence and assist students in their efforts towards mobility and internationalisation.

Initiatives like this have resulted in growing numbers of students and scholars who have spread their innovative approaches and ideas across various geographic market and labour sectors, deepening a sense of pan-European identity and citizenship among young people.

In addition, as participating Bologna countries continue to fine-tune mobility models, non-traditional students and their talents, who in the past were unable to access many internationalising opportunities, now see their prospects brighten. This leads to another key policy aim, that of the social dimension.

Widening access

In the social dimension, efforts have been made to ensure traditionally under-represented groups, including those categorised as disabled, of low socio-economic status and those from immigrant and migrant groups are set on pathways to tertiary education.

While results differ from country to country, in a 2014 Eurydice Brief, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Finland were singled out for their continued careful monitoring of the social dimension and their widening of learning opportunities for under-represented populations, something, arguably, that would not have occurred without Bologna’s motivation.

That this emphasis on social inclusion has also stoked democratic sparks in some nations has not gone unnoticed. Pointedly, with an on-the-record statement by ministers in 2015 pledging to work with students and staff from conflict areas enabling them to return home and advocate for domestic improvement and greater economic and social cohesion, the Process has set its sights on political advances as well.

However, while core Bologna action lines including those of the social dimension and mobility have brought some praiseworthy outcomes, they continue to be patchy and this has had an effect on innovation capacity.

In a 2016 Regional Innovation Scorecard, published by the European Commission, metrics of innovation performance, including the number of new doctorates achieved, the population of 30- to 34-year-olds with a tertiary education, patent applications and international scientific co-publications indicating cross-border collaboration, were benchmarked.

A significant innovation gap emerged among European countries suggesting a geographic divide. In the report, 'innovation leaders' included Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, while 'modest or moderate innovators' included Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary and Romania.

Clearly, these eastern European countries – all Bologna Process signatories – may need to recalibrate their approaches to higher education, strengthening their competitiveness quotients and innovative excellence, more smartly leveraging elements of academic mobility, transnational cooperation and social inclusion, something, perhaps, Bologna can accelerate.

The future

So, how can the Bologna Process and the vision it declares remain viable, relevant, and, most importantly, innovative?

While far from being a perfect ‘finished’ enterprise, the Process remains a work-in-progress, continuing to serve as a space for vital dialogue where a range of issues related to teaching and learning are discussed, analysed and resolved, where the free trade of ideas still carries weight and where vectors of future innovative enterprise for students are charted, leading to change.

As for its future, the work plan up until 2018 includes monitoring the current state of Bologna implementation with attention to such items as the diploma supplement and the level of compliance demonstrated by Bologna’s latest member, Belarus, with regard to their customised 'roadmap' for reform. In addition, there is specific mention of new goals, priorities and innovations focused on the future of the EHEA.

As the Bologna Process continues to sculpt and define these goals and priorities, its ability to progress and change in keeping with the times, remaining agile, responsive and resilient may determine its lasting innovation legacy. It will be interesting to watch and see if, in the existing European climate of exits, the Bologna Process can continue to open new pathways, not only to speed the Process but to push it forward as well.

Joseph M Piro is a professor of educational policy and psychology at Long Island University, USA. His book is entitled Revolutionizing Global Higher Education Policy: Innovation and the Bologna Process. You can follow him on Twitter at @profpiro.