Towards a Bologna Digital strategy for higher education

Twenty years after the Sorbonne Declaration, the key challenges of opening up higher education, improving the quality of teaching and learning, reforming assessment and recognition and promoting internationalisation and mobility remain the same for all countries in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). We believe that digitalisation can significantly contribute to overcoming them.

Digitalisation has not been ignored within the Bologna Process. Policy-makers, individual higher education institutions and other education providers have been active. However, the full potential of digitalisation has not been reached on a systemic level. This is partly due to digitalisation being viewed as an additional challenge rather than a means to meet existing challenges for higher education.

It is our aim that the Paris Communiqué for May 2018, and the work programme which comes after it, should pay even more attention to the benefits, but also to the challenges related to the increasing digitalisation of our lives. Also the envisaged networks of 'European Universities' should set examples in digitalising education, research and innovation.

Attaining a ‘Bologna Digital’ by 2020 is not a separate action line, but a cross-sectional goal that can improve higher education performance in all existing action lines as outlined below.


The challenge of achieving a student population that fully reflects the diversity in our societies is frequently discussed within the context of the Bologna Process as the ‘social dimension’. It is about raising the aspirations of potential students, facilitating second-chance routes into higher education and providing specific support to students to assure student success, including online induction courses.

This involves, in particular, effective forms of information, advice and guidance for learners and offering special bridging courses to account for a diversity of educational routes into higher education.

Better use of digital tools in learning environments can offer personalised education options according to diverse prior knowledge and personal needs, tailored curricula and learning units, as well as providing better individual guidance during study progress.

Recognition of non-formal (digital) learning

Simplifying and scaling recognition of learning at different and flexible locations of learning (both formal and non-formal) remains a challenge. This issue is particularly relevant to the recognition of prior learning throughout the educational biography of lifelong learners, inside and outside of formal study programmes.

When higher education providers recognise and build on the increasing learning opportunities throughout the digital environment, they can put learners on new learning pathways into and through higher education, which are more responsive to learners’ needs and labour market requirements.

To do so, they need to develop and publish procedures for the assessment and recognition of prior (digital) learning achieved through different forms of (open) online education, building upon quality assurance to be done by MOOC providers. This could also facilitate the gradual integration of non-traditional learners into full programmes of study and allow for more flexible student journeys.

The admission process

While most programmes of study are announced online on university and college websites and on dedicated study portals, the process of admission into higher education programmes is still largely a lengthy paper-based process. Paper-based admission processes often lack transparency and cause delays and frustration, especially among international students, and should be discontinued. Digitalisation of processes and student records can facilitate reform and improvement and reduce efforts and costs at institutional level.

Teaching and learning

Various ministerial communiqués call for a student-centred approach to learning. This approach fosters the motivation of learners and the relevance of learning to learners’ own context (their current life, their future profession, etc) and it is more reflective of how learning occurs outside of the institutional setting. It enables the student to experiment with and exercise self-determined learning.

The call for this type of learning is not new, but it is seen as difficult to offer on a large scale and in an institutional setting. It requires learning materials to be developed which go beyond knowledge transition and requires new skills of teachers. Using open educational resources and peer-learning networks are two examples of how digital solutions facilitate overcoming this challenge. European-wide initiatives could be explored as a central resource and as examples for national solutions.

Higher education institutions should make the use of digitally enhanced learning environments an important institutional strategy. A Europe-wide platform for digital higher education and enhanced cooperation would also promote innovation in this area.

Degrees and qualifications

During the development of the Bologna Process, the common programme has led to agreement on four cycles of study (short-cycles, bachelor, masters and doctoral programmes) and to the wide use of the European Credit Transfer System to award credit points for learning progression.

Currently, increases in the diversity of provision in and widening access to higher education lead to two additional questions: whether qualifications awarded at the end of a study programme should be the main form of credential, or should more focus be given to smaller units of learning, which would promote more flexible forms of study progress; and are these qualifications a comprehensive and fair record of what is learned during higher education study?

In particular, this second question is related to the issue of how higher education outcomes can be better formulated for their use in the labour market, where employers are increasingly interested in the acquisition of transversal soft skills alongside formal qualifications.

Digital solutions for alternative credentials focus on digital badges and other portfolio innovations. They can be used to make visible skills and experiences acquired during studies, but also for documenting the acquisition of micro-credentials and nano-degrees designed to serve labour market needs. However, their value is also dependent upon their acceptance in the labour market.

Internationalisation and mobility

The internationalisation and mobility of students and staff within the EHEA is a key route to a person’s formation as a global citizen and to improving social cohesion between populations of different nations. The Erasmus programme and various national initiatives have been highly effective in supporting physical movement of students and staff within the European region.

However, this is only one element of internationalisation, especially when one considers that only a fraction of each nation’s students and staff take part in such programmes – and non-traditional students are least likely to be internationally mobile. Good internationalisation strategies depend on close cooperation between sending and hosting institutions.

Additionally, initiatives must be implemented to support ‘internationalisation at home’ for all students and staff in higher education, including virtual exchange opportunities.

Digital technologies can play a role in promoting virtual connections between citizens through collaborative online or blended-learning programmes and courses. They can also help students to better prepare for their studies abroad and experience the academic culture at their host institution even before physically going there.

Quality assurance

Improving the quality of teaching and learning for all students in higher education is a central challenge for institutions and policy-makers. Digital solutions offer new forms of learning and new modes of learning delivery; however, they also present new challenges to existing quality-assurance procedures.

For instance, open educational resources present a challenge in that they allow all users to modify and adapt learning content, while massive open online courses (MOOCs) present a challenge because they are often open entry and do not always monitor progress. For this reason, higher education stakeholders regularly express their concerns about the quality of online courses and the impact of digital learning on student competences.

This calls for a review of standard quality assurance measures, setting common standards and exploring mechanisms of quality assurance through large-scale (digital) peer review processes. This review process could be facilitated with independent advice on the quality of online provision such as MOOCs produced by third parties.

To support this, governments and stakeholders could encourage the creation of one or more dedicated European agencies, focusing on assessing digital lifelong learning offerings.

This short article has sketched out some of the areas in need of reform in higher education. We see a ‘Bologna Digital’ strategy as a route to improving teaching, learning and credentialing and further support widening participation for all parts of society.

Dr Dominic Orr is a senior researcher at FiBS Research Institute for Economics of Education and Social Affairs, Berlin, Germany. Email: Peter van der Hijden is an independent European higher education expert, Brussels, Belgium. Email: Florian Rampelt is director of education, Kiron Open Higher Education, Berlin. Email: Ronny Röwert is head of German academic relations, Kiron Open Higher Education, Berlin. Email: and Dr Renata Suter is head of research, Kiron Open Higher Education, Berlin. Email: This is an edited version of a position paper prepared for the Bologna Follow-up Group. The paper can be found here.