Bologna 20 years on – Look at the bigger picture

How should we be judging the Bologna Process 20 years on? The recent ministerial meeting provides a good opportunity to consider progress to date.

It is true that most ministerial conferences can be boring to ministers who have no sustained interest in the issues. Their national officials will have done all the key work in conjunction with the Bologna secretariat. And because Bologna is an intergovernmental process, there are never any binding decisions. The most animated meetings may well be those that take place in the coffee breaks and not necessarily on Bologna topics.

But it is also the case that Bologna gives a lot of scope for those who wish to benefit through a fruitful exchange of ideas across a Europe that stretches from the Atlantic to the Caspian Sea. There are not all that many groupings which share core higher education interests across such a diverse Europe, divided as it is by politics, style of government and, in at least one case, war.

A 20-year-old network

As I see it we should take issue with the summary judgements on Bologna and look at the bigger picture. Bologna is not simply the outcome of a ministerial meeting. It is a part of a now 20-year-old network of stakeholder initiatives that have developed to provide European higher education systems with incentives to adapt and improve as part of a European Higher Education Area.

It draws national members from 48 countries and has the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture as the 49th member. But at its core it is dependent, as this year’s communiqué puts it, on a collegiate and improvement-oriented ethos.

In this the European Higher Education Area is quite distinct from the well-developed ASEAN-ASEM (Association of Southeast Asian Nations – Asia-Europe Meeting) network of education systems across South Asia which functions predominantly through ministerial structures.

Bologna may not make much sense to a Brexited Britain ready to turn its back to anything with the word Europe in it, and which is only belatedly at government level recognising the advantages of European higher education and research cooperation as outlined in the recent White Paper on Brexit.

Bologna has also had its periodic difficulties with countries which have seen it as a legal process and with higher education sectors that have conflated the Bologna Process with unpopular national policies, effectively alienating academics and students.


But consider this: the 10 years’ experience of a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) has given 48 countries abundant scope to develop policies which make sense to those directly involved in international higher education collaboration and cooperation and have an interest in strengthening national systems.

Bologna has worked through a mix of common structural commitments and a common language related to recognition and quality assurance, and common values. These are maintained, if unevenly, through sectoral networks, and a typically European arrangement, whereby the co-chairmanship of the Bologna Process coincides with the European Union cycle of Council presidencies to work on common agendas.

Essentially, however, the reason why the messages of a European higher education area are carried, developed and re-interpreted across many countries is that stakeholders are intrinsically involved, and that includes students as well as research and teaching networks who have a personal engagement.

Some examples came my way when I attended the 2015 Bologna ministerial conference in Yerevan, Armenia. A member of the Czech delegation, a musician and principal of the Leos Janacek Foundation, had been expressly included so that he could renew face to face contact with musical colleagues in the Armenian system.

An Armenian archaeologist had got on the attendees’ list in order to link up with German archaeologists, seen as the scholarly leaders in the discipline. A young official from an authoritarian regime was relishing the professional and personal opportunity to hold discussions with counterparts from elsewhere.

New initiatives

The more institutional efforts at implementation take place through Bologna working groups and their links to national grassroots organisations. Initiatives continue to emerge. There are now ‘islands’ of mutual recognition among some neighbouring countries, refinements in quality assurance. In the process they can provide support to somewhat beleaguered professionals in authoritarian regimes.

Particularly interesting this year is that ministers have responded to the uneven implementation of Bologna action points with a renewed initiative on an issue that has dogged Bologna history. They have asked the Bologna Follow-up Group, the management group that represents all 49 members, to develop and enhance forms of peer and process review.

They are especially concerned to strengthen compliance with the Bologna three-cycle system, and its newest addition – a short-cycle diploma, which has been knitted into the Bologna commitments on credit transfer and into national qualifications frameworks that respect the EHEA framework.

This proposal needs volunteers to ask for help and volunteers to offer it. But it also gives scope for behind the scenes encouragement and some informal arm twisting, based on the scorecards of achievements on Bologna action points.

The latest edition as presented to ministers is The European Higher Education Area in 2018: Bologna Process implementation report. The hope is that such efforts reflect collegiality as opposed to the conventional ‘trickle down’ method of much voluntary policy development.

Academic freedom

Also significant is the new step to highlight the ethics of the higher education domain. Lip service has been paid over many years by Bologna ministers. But one senses this year a new urgency. Ministers point to higher education’s “underpinning values of academic freedom and integrity, the engagement of staff and students in internal governance, and the historical commitment in Europe to educate its citizens for a place in a democratic society”.

They agree that higher education must play the role that is appropriate to it in countering political polarisation, radicalisation and violent extremism. They even recognise that such aspirations need to be supported by national action to counter such festering sores as unemployment and social inequality.

I take the unfashionable view that European cooperation in higher education is, in many ways, fortunate to be a ‘low politics’ issue, as opposed to the traditional ‘high politics’ concerns of trade, defence and security policies because that allows greater opportunities for the sector to engage.

But I see a commitment like this one in the communiqué as one of those moments where it is important to bring the process into the open rather than writing it off. Only in that way can it be recognised as a gauge for the future.

Dr Anne Corbett is a senior associate at LSE Enterprise at the London School of Economics and Political Science, United Kingdom. She has long-standing experience in the field of higher education and Europe as a researcher, a journalist and a contributor to public policy.

CORRECTION: This article was changed on 25 July to remove a quote incorrectly reporting that Michael Gaebel, director of the Higher Education Policy Unit of the European University Association, had said the Bologna Process was still “treading water”, a view he does not share.