Why the Bologna Process works for higher education

Ah, the perils of a catchy quote! In my last contribution to University World News I let my inner journalist ego triumph over my sober academic id. I quoted Michael Gaebel, a senior official at the European University Association (EUA), as declaring that the Bologna Process “is treading water”. This quote had been in print in another place. But in this era of fake news, I should have paused to think that it was very unlikely that he would have said it (and he didn’t). And here’s why.

The EUA has an interest in boosting the Bologna Process in its mission to create and sustain a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) that is both organisational and values-based, or epistemic.

It is one of eight consultative members to participate in the Bologna management process, with the responsibility of proposing concrete action to implement Bologna ministers’ wishes and of persuading their members in the 47 national systems to implement the developments to make the EHEA sustainable.

The consultative members, attendees at the Bologna follow-up process management meetings and contributors to working groups, represent key stakeholder organisations and those international institutions with a scope that is both European and higher education-based.

They are the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education or EURASHE, representing professional higher education, the European Students’ Union representing national student unions, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, Education International, the European section of which is now part of the wider European trade union representative body ETUCE, and BusinessEurope, a companies advocate for growth and competitiveness and employability. The Council of Europe and UNESCO complete the list.

In modern management theory stakeholders are seen as crucial to the success of a business, and by extension to an economic or social project needing critical input from outside the organising hierarchy. As the experts put it: Neglect them and they will actively work against you. Manage them well and they will actively promote the project and even the leadership.

A commitment with long roots

The Bologna evidence supports the theory. Some of these Bologna Process stakeholders have a history of commitment to European higher education that dates back to the Cold War. The national grouping of rectors’ organisations, one of the predecessors of the EUA, was meeting back in the 1950s.

The European Students’ Union grew out of a 1980s European student information bureau set up to offer an alternative to the communist-dominated European Student Association. The Council of Europe and UNESCO have their origins in the reconstruction of civil society following World War II.

The Bologna Process has magnified their influence and membership. Whereas the interest of national ministries varies with context, and junior staff are often sent to hold the fort, the stakeholder bodies have expertise and a continuity of strategic personnel.

Bologna dynamics have also revolved around the messy but fruitful solution to relations with the European Union. The European Commission is also something of a stakeholder through its EU interests and is a full member of the Bologna Process, with a representative from its education directorate enjoying one vote alongside the national Bologna membership of 48 countries across a greater Europe.

The British, guess what, tried to keep the commission out at the beginning of the process – and were supported by the French – arguing that their involvement was an infringement of the intergovernmental process. But the other, and on the evidence, wiser members, as well as the stakeholders, knew from previous decades’ experience that commission support was logistically vital and an essential source of expertise and ideas.

Working together

The literature likes to question whether stakeholders are driven by their epistemic concerns or self-interest. The Bologna evidence here is that the separation is not especially meaningful. Since the long tradition of intergovernmental cooperation in higher education across Europe has been biased towards the political, Bologna skews the balance in a way that is positive for higher education.

There are many examples of Bologna commitments emerging from the agendas of stakeholders and the commission, with national representatives joining in, depending on circumstances.

The EUA, for example, played a key role in extending the Bologna two-cycle structure to three to include doctoral studies. The EUA and European Students’ Union combined to ensure that there was an institutional level to quality assurance procedures that includes academics and students. Students joined up with the French to get a strong definition of academic freedom into the Berlin Communiqué in 2003.

The commission has been working hard with volunteer countries on automatic recognition. Extended mobility opportunities and a social dimension, which now includes support for refugees, has been driven by stakeholders.

Support, not sanctions

The most recent example, arising out of the 2018 Paris ministerial meeting, is the commitment to peer support through the new Bologna Implementation Coordination Group (BICG) and is something that stakeholders and a varied group of national representatives are showing great interest in.

Bologna has been plagued by the uneven implementation of its commitment to the three-degree structure, its particular take on quality assurance and Bologna-wide recognition. The educational stakeholders have been strong in their belief that support is more constructive than sanctions.

The academic trade union, Education International, is particularly sharp on suggesting cheap talk is not enough. Funding, governance and active support for incentives for collaborative academic working all play their part in making academic values meaningful.

But who knows how this situation will look in the future? It is not too much to say that the European Commission holds the power of life and death over the Bologna Process unless the national members were to embark on new thinking about resources across the 48.

There is some anxiety about how the commission plays its new commitment to an EU-based European Education Area in relation to Bologna, and what, if any, adaptation will be required by stakeholders.

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.