Time to innovate and revitalise the Bologna Process

The upcoming Paris Ministerial Conference is a unique occasion to revitalise the Bologna Process and to use its appeal to point at new directions, areas where action is most needed to serve society and strengthen the position of European higher education worldwide. There are three areas of action where I believe good progress can be made.

Open, inclusive and innovative higher education

Life and the labour market are full of uncertainties. Higher education helps our citizens to cope and become more resilient. It should be of high quality, open, inclusive and innovative. We should rethink the bachelor, its content and structure.

A well-structured and open educational offer gives young people the tools to become well-informed, value-oriented and critical citizens as well as skilled and flexible professionals.

In order for them to do well in life, we should encourage learners to choose a combination of technical skills, related to certain occupancies, knowledge of the STEAM – science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics – fields, linguistic capacities, media and digital literacy, entrepreneurial competences and the soft skills that help a person communicate and collaborate successfully.

Moreover, effective higher education offers students a wide range of both academic and work-based learning experiences, ranging from theoretical classes, to dual learning bachelors, to industrial masters and doctorates. Such an offering would include professional development internships, career guidance as well as start-up creation and mentoring facilities.

Attractive programmes are student-centred, stimulating an active learning attitude throughout life with students becoming co-creators of their own learning experience. They foster study abroad. They develop civic, social and cultural engagement of learners as a crucial factor for making our societies more peaceful, inclusive and sustainable.

Every effort should be made to promote study success and social mobility by helping people to accede and complete study programmes relevant for the labour market and appealing to their personal interests and ambitions. Efforts in this regard would include easily accessible preparatory programmes, foundation courses as well as guidance and counselling services.

Not all students will have the wish or the capacity to complete a full bachelor or masters programme (or indeed do a doctorate). Many of them could, nevertheless, benefit from engaging in some form of recognised learning experiences at those levels.

So, next to full degree programmes there should be easily accessible modules that are recognised on their own – through badging – and as a part of stackable degree programmes. Certain functions of higher education could be 'unbundled'. Full use should be made of online and blended learning options, building dedicated European MOOC – massive open online course – platforms.

Reference tools, developed in the Bologna context, have helped to enhance the quality and comparability of study programmes, notably the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area and the system of qualifications frameworks at European national, sectorial and subject area level.

In this context the development of new transparency instruments that would provide real evidence on what individual study programmes deliver to learners is to be welcomed. Such a new transparency instrument would inform student choice and help institutions identify their strengths and weaknesses.

Of particular interest is the growing number of bachelor programmes that combine liberal arts and sciences. They could function as an inspiration for innovation in bachelor education Europe-wide.

Europe, the place to study and work

Europe has relatively few natural resources. Its strengths lie in the prevalence of the rule of law, the quality of its institutions, its modern infrastructures and its well-educated population. In terms of numbers, however, less than 10% of the world population lives in Europe and no natural growth is expected. Europe thus depends on exchanges with other parts of the world for its economic, political and social survival.

Higher education plays a very important role in furthering exchanges with other parts of the world, be it through student and staff mobility or through collaborative research. National and European programmes support these exchanges. Europe should complete the higher education modernisation agenda and invest in its future.

Universities have taken important steps in recent years already to modernise their programmes and improve their student services. Building on these achievements, further steps should be taken to ensure that Europe becomes the place to study and work, ie Europe as 'The Graduate School of The World'.

The idea would be to create a welcoming environment for the best and brightest locally and globally, to ensure that talented individuals will want to spend a few of their most formative years in Europe, studying full time or combining work and study; to offer the most talented among them the possibility to stay in Europe to do research, to start a career or to set up a business of their own.

For this to happen, universities should further enhance the quality and transparency of study programmes and student services. Universities should invest in attractive student housing and create start-up facilities, together with public and private partners.

Student admission procedures should be geared towards the diverse classroom of the future. Student data should be safely transmitted online. Visa regulations should accommodate the influx of students and knowledge workers.

Dedicated and sustained (social) media campaigns should support the European higher education brand, based on academic quality, values, economic prospects and quality of life.

Bologna-Paris invitation: New implementation monitoring approach

Reform capacity and ambition vary inevitably across the vast and diverse European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Implementation monitoring should take this fact into account and encourage steady growth in performance, addressing both countries and individual institutions.

Countries and universities should be invited to sign up to the classic Bologna package they know already and the new Bologna package outlined above and to be agreed in Paris. Individual institutions would thus be able to express their adherence on a dedicated web page of the Bologna Secretariat, where they can list the activities they will undertake to achieve their own benchmarks.

Independent experts could report and comment on progress made. This transparent and bottom-up approach would help to ensure a gradual improvement of programmes and services and would naturally establish quality circles of like-minded institutions, regions and countries.

These new (or existing) groupings will engage in mutual support activities and benchmarking exercises. They may use training facilities to be created at local, national, regional or European level.

The EHEA Secretariat and the Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG) or their successors, including relevant stakeholders, can facilitate the process. The BFUG could agree on indicators and templates to be proposed by the Bologna Board and prepared by a BFUG Working Group, involving independent experts.

The Paris Ministerial Conference is an opportunity to rethink European higher education with the aim of presenting an inspiring, innovative approach that makes Europe the destination for students.

Peter van der Hijden is an independent European higher education expert, Brussels, Belgium. Email: