When Europe Comes Alive

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Last week I had the fortune of presenting at the European Association for Institutional Research Conference (EAIR) in beautiful Innsbruck, Austria. For those who don’t often get the opportunity to travel to Europe, let alone international conferences, much of the current dialogue revolves around something called the “Bologna Process” (or Accord). For the uninitiated, the Bologna Process is an agreement of over 40 European countries regarding higher education. It is titled “Bologna” after its original signing place at the University of Bologna in Italy in 1999. The premise, or perhaps promise, of Bologna is to standardize higher (or tertiary) education across Europe, such that degrees are somewhat transferrable. In the new EU economy, many feel that this is important for the continued development of a true economic unit, such as the EU (to be true, there are dissenters to this belief). 

The Bologna process probably wouldn’t have garnered any traction if the Euro hadn’t been so successful. When the Euro came into being in 2002, many thought it would fail and would immediately fall in value to the US Dollar. But Europeans grasped onto the Euro immediately, and within days, the value of the Euro superseded that of the US Dollar. The Euro, now used by 13 of the 27 member states of the European Union, is worth $1.38 US dollars and $1.44 Canadian dollars. It has done remarkable well and made an exclamation mark on the statement that Europe is open for business.

But, contrary to belief, the Bologna Process is not part of the EU. However, it is benefiting greatly from the success of the Euro and the perceived benefits of the EU in totality. The overall sense and foundation of the Bologna process is that, for the EU and other Bologna member countries to expand and compete in a global economy, the system of higher education needs to come into a parallel format. Currently, higher education systems are significantly different from country to country. European universities have typically not used the terms “undergraduate,” “masters,” or “doctorate” terms in the same manner as in the US and Canada. Part of the Bologna Process is to bring a certain level of “Americanization” to the process, although this is an over-simplification of terms, to be sure. The Bologna Process plans to create what can be called a 3+2+3 process (or “cycles”), where the undergraduate portion is 3 years, a masters portion 2 years, and the doctoral process an additional 3 years, for a total of 8 years of study to the “terminal” degree. This framework was outlined in the Bergen Declaration of 2005 and is now being implemented in several member countries.

This is an exciting time for European higher education. In education, we often talk of “reform,” but understand all-to-well that reform is difficult and often beyond our grasp. In Europe, reform is occurring due in part to Bologna, but also to the need to open their systems of higher education to the masses. European higher education has traditionally been focused on the elite, but over the past few decades has opened significantly to other students. This has caused a serious need for higher education reform, especially in a fiscal sense. Systems that have been virtually free to students are now, for the first time, requiring “private” funds, or tuition payments, for study. It can be argued that this push for “widening participation,” as it is often called, also paved the way for the Bologna Process. Guy Neave of the University of Twente in Enschede, Netherlands, posed it this way:

 “No one who is a student of higher education policy will bother to disagree – let alone deny – that we live in rousing times. Nor that the universities in Europe face what is very certainly the most complex and geographically speaking most ambitious series of reforms in their long history of nigh on nine centuries” (extracted from an upcoming EPI Policy Perspective by José-Ginés Mora of Valencia University of Technology).

Rousing is perhaps a great descriptor of the current process. But it is not without its challenges. Greek students provided a backlash at the proposal in 2006, causing street riots and other signs of solidarity against the Bologna Process. Others argue that alignment of the higher education systems in Europe is overdoing it, because in actuality there is very little movement, people-wise, among EU countries. And mobility is one of the founding principles of the Bologna Process.

And while the Bologna Process aims to “Americanize” the system, to a degree, it defaults on a three-year undergraduate degree, which, of course, isn’t remotely American or Canadian in anyway. So while the European system is “aligned,” there are calls asking: “Align to what?”

If I have my facts correct, the aim of Bologna is to implement these frameworks (the three “cycles” as noted above) by 2010 (According to the London Communiqué of May 18, 2007). No one in Innsbruck really believed that this was possible. In fact, 2020 was brought up as a possible realistic date for member countries to bring their systems into comparability.

I don’t pretend to know everything about Bologna or the EU. I have attended several international meetings in the past few years, and for obvious reasons, Bologna dominates the discussion. I write this week because we are in a glorious position to witness true education reform from a distance. Those of us in the US and Canada understand how difficult it is to get at any reform in a system where states and provinces rule, and the federal government dances around the margins trying to be relevant. But Europe is showing us all that reform can happen, even if it is painful sometimes.

Stay tuned for my update in 2020.

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