The Bologna Process needs to go back to basics

The crisis of academic freedom in Europe emerged as the main theme at the recent Bologna Process Beyond 2020: Fundamental values of the EHEA conference in Bologna. More than 200 university rectors and 800 other stakeholders participated.

The aim of the conference was partly to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Bologna Declaration and partly to feed into the next European Higher Education Area or EHEA ministerial conference on the future of the Bologna Process that will take place in Rome next year.

Daniela Cristina Ghitulica of the Bologna Follow-up Group set the tone in the opening session. It is time to move from “a focus on structural changes to common fundamental values”, she said.

The Bologna Declaration, signed in 1999 by 29 European ministers of higher education, has had a big impact on education in Europe. The declaration set in motion an unprecedented and ambitious process of pan-European integration in an area traditionally marked by diversity of national systems.

The intention was to create a European Higher Education Area by 2010, with a common degree structure in Europe, strengthening quality assurance and making recognition of qualifications and periods of study easier.

The process has undoubtedly contributed to shaping the higher education landscape in Europe and within the 48 countries that over time have signed the declaration. Yet the Bologna Process is not a case of ‘mission accomplished’.

After 20 years of policy coordination in Europe, there is a need to re-think the main paths forward.

Fundamental values

In going forward we need to clearly address the fundamental values of higher education: academic freedom, institutional autonomy and how we contribute to the public good.

These matters were somewhat left in the shadow by the attention attached to the structural issues involved in creating a common higher education area over the first 20 years of the Bologna Process.

At the same time, alarming trends have emerged over the course of these years – trends that challenge the value basis of higher education.

The marketisation of universities is a key trend in this respect. To us it is fundamental that our students are neither customers nor clients. We should rather be eager to enrol and involve them properly in the learning community of the university. This will be how we measure success at the University of Oslo in Norway in the years to come.

We also need to confront other constraints affecting both our institutional autonomy and our academic freedom. We need to be reflective and responsive. The possible restrictive impact of single source financing of major initiatives is obvious and a diversification of universities’ sources of revenue should be sought.

We should furthermore examine the way in which we use our autonomy, how we give weight to some concerns over others and how we balance and match the different expectations made of universities; let alone the expectations that we ourselves create. After all, academic freedom goes hand in hand with societal responsibility and with academic responsibility.

Back to basics

If we were to describe the way forward for European universities and the European Higher Education Area it might be phrased as a “back to the basics” approach, returning to the roots of the Bologna Process.

Its focus on openness and cooperation was a follow-up from universities’ own declaration of European higher education values in 1988, the Magna Charta Universitatum, which was originally signed by around 400 European university rectors and has now been signed by almost 900 universities around the world.

This year the Magna Charta Universitatum Observatory is considering an update of the charter to reflect changes in the sector and its relation to society.

We welcome such an update and the recent declaration from the Global Forum on Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy and the Future of Democracy, resulting from a conference in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg from 20-21 June, constitutes an excellent basis for such an update.

This answers the request by Liviu Matei, provost of the Central European University. He was clear in his address in Bologna: at present, an authoritative definition of academic freedom does not exist. A common European Education Higher Area definition of academic freedom is much needed. This must be a central topic during the ministerial conference in Rome next year.

Svein Stølen is rector and Åse Gornitzka is vice-rector of the University of Oslo, Norway.