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Christian Tauch and Guy Haug
Bologna, Salamanca, Göteborg, Prague – and now?
Recent Developments in the Bologna Process[*]

When European Ministers and representatives of the higher education community met in Bologna in June 1999 to discuss and sign the Declaration on the European higher education area, even the more optimistic observers did not expect the ensuing debate and reform/change process to take on such speed and intensity all over Europe. As the report "Trends in Learning Structures in Higher Education (II)"[Fn_1] shows, the Bologna Declaration met with widespread interest and support not only in all the signatory countries, but also in a number of countries in and outside Europe that followed the developments as observers.

All signatory countries have by now established a unit or forum to explain and discuss the content and implications of the "European Higher Education Area". The Bologna Declaration has served as a new source of dialogue between Ministries and higher education institutions as well as among sub-sectors of higher education. It is mostly seen as confirming or reinforcing national priorities by "crystallising" major trends and by revealing that issues and solutions have a European dimension. As a consequence the process is not (or no longer) seen as an intrusion, but as a source of information on the most suitable way forward for Europe and as a long-term agenda for structural change.

1. Change and reforms since the signature of the Bologna Declaration

The Trends II report found that there is a large consensus on the core objectives of the process: mobility, employability and competitiveness/attractiveness.

The promotion of the mobility of students and graduates has been unanimously welcomed, while staff mobility still seems to receive insufficient attention. Tools like the "European Credits Transfer System" (ECTS) and the Diploma Supplement are explicitly welcomed.

The Bologna Declaration further increased the awareness that employability is an issue in higher education all over Europe. The debate has now taken into account

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that there are various ways in which first degrees can be "relevant to the European labour market" – as stipulated in the Bologna Declaration – and that all need not to be directly geared towards short-term needs of the labour market. While there are many new "professional Bachelors" and some new "professional Masters" especially (but not only) in the college/polytechnic sector across Europe, in some countries university Bachelors are mainly seen as a preparation for further studies and a platform for the choice of post-graduate studies.

As for competitiveness/attractiveness, most countries now seem to understand "competitiveness" in a positive sense and to endorse the need for their higher education systems to be "attractive". Several countries have devised specific plans for informing, attracting and welcoming more non-European students. In accession countries, the concern to enhance their attractiveness to students from the European Union is in many cases intimately related to their desire to balance their exchanges within the SOCRATES exchange programme. Most countries show amazingly little concern about transnational education (i. e. education delivered in their country under the control of a university from another country or continent) and about accreditation sought by their universities from non-European accreditation agencies. Conversely, the convergence process unleashed by the Bologna declaration is attracting interest outside Europe, in particular in Latin America: this confirms one of the objectives of the process, namely to make Europe a more attractive study destination in other world regions by introducing comprehensible and consistent higher education structures.

The Bologna Declaration lists four main instruments to achieve the desired convergence: easily readable and comparable degrees, a undergraduate/postgraduate structure of programmes and degrees, credit systems and quality assurance.

Regarding the readability of degrees, it has become obvious that the Bologna Declaration did not, and does not, impose any uniformity, as was sometimes feared : on the contrary, it has rather encouraged more diversity and flexibility. In particular there are now more binary systems (systems with a university sector and a college/polytechnic sector), with more "bridges" between sub-systems as well as more "professional" Bachelors and Masters. Several countries are deliberately developing integrated higher education systems, i. e. a single, comprehensive system combining in an articulated way different types of institutions linked by bridges. Yet, in many countries there are still very complex degree structures (e. g. in "trinary" systems with universities, colleges/polytechnics and short post-secondary courses) and the Diploma Supplement is seen as all the more important in helping to achieve transparency of degree structures.

The movement of convergence towards a two-tier structure (i. e. with a distinction between an undergraduate and a postgraduate phase) continues, both through the implementation of previously adopted reforms, the consolidation of Bachelor/Master structures introduced during the last decade and the initiation of

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new reforms in several new countries. There are now examples of two-tier structures in all disciplines, including engineering (though few in medicine). There are, however, also many countries where the Bachelor/Master structure is not applied to curricula in certain professional areas that hence remain organised in the traditional way in long, one-tier courses. The strongest trend is towards 3-year Bachelors, but there are also many examples of Bachelors requiring 3.5 or 4 years of study. Many of the most comprehensive reform plans combine the introduction of Bachelor/Master degrees, credits and some kind of accreditation procedure (i. e. "the golden triangle of reforms"), in particular in countries that engaged early in the reform process. A major breakthrough was achieved at the seminar on first (Bachelor-type) degrees in Helsinki in February 2001, where the format of the European "Bachelor" degrees (whether they are called Bachelor or any other name in a national language) was defined: they should be of diverse profiles (i. e. specialised or broadly-based, with a more or less "professional" or "academic" profile, geared mainly towards the entrance to the labour market or to the continuation of studies at the postgraduate level) and they should be not less than 180 and no more than 240 ECTS credit points. There is however not a similar move towards the formal convergence at the level of Master courses and degrees.

The survey carried out for the Trends II report showed that ECTS has been widely accepted as a multi-purpose tool for the convergence towards the European higher education area. There is a similarly strong push for the introduction of ECTS or ECTS-compatible systems in almost all countries, either on a compulsory basis or, more often, following the strong recommendation of the rectors’ conference and/or the ministry. The fears that the introduction of credits would deprive universities of their possibility to organise their curricula in coherent sequences or oblige them to recognise all imported credits are diminishing. At the same time there is a conspicuous need for more determined coordination in the implementation of ECTS, in order to avoid too wide divergence that would defeat the expected advantages of the scheme.

There is also a powerful movement towards more and more "European" quality assurance (new national agencies, new standards, the European Network for Quality Assurance ENQA), but in very different ways and according to a variety of models. The development of "accreditation" is now more easily recognisable than at the time of the Bologna conference: many non-EU/EEA countries have accreditation, and several others are considering the possibility of, or have firm plans for a new accreditation agency (separate from the national quality assurance agency or combined with it). In some countries that are aware of the need to act to increase the international acceptance of their new (as well as old) degrees, accreditation is seen as a sine qua non condition to build up trust and hence demonstrate competitiveness. The decentralised approach to quality assurance/accreditation (sometimes referred to as "meta accreditation") which is being experimented with in Germany may provide

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inspiration for a basic European approach based on three main pillars : the mutual acceptance of quality assurance decisions, the respect of national and subject differences and the need to avoid overloading universities with yet another level of evaluation and control.

The Bologna process is also having a significant impact in non-signatory countries: the Trends II report covers six non-signatory European countries: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It did not cover other countries, although it was clear that there was interest in e. g. Turkey, Russia and some other countries in the former Soviet Union.

In Albania and in the countries of former Yugoslavia the Bologna Declaration receives strong attention and interest, in particular as a reference for long term structural reforms and as an agenda for change in the whole of Europe. As for Cyprus, its higher education system is already largely in line with the principles of the Bologna Declaration.

The process of change from Bologna to Prague shows that the convergence process has continued and actually accelerated while at the same time gaining breadth. This was only possible because the Bologna Declaration, far from imposing an artificial set of standards, captured common needs and trends and capitalised on trends that already existed in a number of countries and institutions but were inhibited because they were not yet expressed and shared at European level. This "crystallisation" function of the process could however only happen at the same time as fears or concern entailed by the Declaration could be answered and thus reduced. Diminishing or even vanishing fears/concern could be observed over the last two years with respect to many key aspects. There are now many less voices expressing the view that the process would lead to the uniformisation of European higher education and wipe out the differences of national systems, languages and approaches or would put on a straightjacket on institutional curricula; more now see the Bologna process as a chance to promote more diverse profiles of curricula more responsive to various needs and goals. In the same way, the fear that the adoption of a credit system like ECTS may deprive universities from the possibility to organise their curricula as a structured learning process and a cohesive sequence (and thus giving in to the so-called "cafeteria" model where students could pick just any course at any time) has significantly diminished. this is also true with respect to the fear that universities may no longer be free to recognise or not to recognise imported credits and would thus be forced to accept to transfer credits against their will; developments have in the meantime made clear that autonomous institutions were responsible for their credit transfer policy, which they should however disclose in order to avoid arbitrary decisions; automatic credit transfer only applies were institutions have accepted it, e. g. in partnership agreements or through their voluntary participation in European programmes where the transfer of credits

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obtained elsewhere needs to be guaranteed, e. g. for ERASMUS student exchanges. Finally the unexpected interpretation of the Bologna Declaration as an attempt to make away with binary systems (i. e. systems consisting of universities and colleges/polytechnics) has been proven to be wrong: the Bologna process is perfectly compatible with the diversity of institutions in Europe and applies to the whole of higher education.

2. Major recent steps at European level

The year 2001 so far saw three major events on the road to the European Higher Education Area: The Convention of European higher education institutions in Salamanca (March), the Student convention in Göteborg (March) and the Meeting of Ministers with representatives of the higher education community in Prague (May).[Fn_2] All three events confirmed the continued commitment of the key actors to the progress and success of the convergence process towards the European higher education area.

In Salamanca European higher education institutions and their representative organisations confirmed their commitment to the achievement of the European higher education area by the end of the decade. The Salamanca Message emphasises the European tradition of higher education as a "public good" (i. e. a part of public policy for social cohesiveness as well as economic development) rather than as a mere commercial commodity. It also stressed the importance of university autonomy as a necessary condition for the successful implementation of the Goals of the Bologna Declaration (i. e. institutions not in a position to shape their curricula and adjust to the diversity of needs and opportunities will suffer from a competitive disadvantage). Another major emphasis of the Salamanca Message is on quality assurance mechanisms and their crucial role for the effective functioning of the European higher education area; for the first time a scenario was sketched for a European mechanism based on the mutual acceptance of quality assurance outcomes, with "accreditation" as one possible option. When one bears in mind that the Bologna Declaration was comparatively shy or even weak on quality aspects, the recognition of the importance of the issue combined with the paving of possible ways into the future marks a decisive achievement of the follow-up process, which made up through its own dynamics for the weakness of the original Declaration. A major statement of the Salamanca Message is that European higher education institutions recognise that their students need and demand qualifications which they

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can use effectively for the purpose of their studies and careers all over Europe and that they acknowledge their role and responsibility in this regard. For all these reasons the Salamanca Message should be seen in many respects as a key document setting out future directions for European higher education institutions with which all those contributing to European and institutional developments should make certain that they are informed or even familiar.

Students gathered in Göteborg within the framework of the National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB) put particular emphasis on the development of all types of mobility in the European higher education area and called on Ministers and heads of universities not to neglect the social aspects of the Bologna process (e. g. access to all levels of a higher education system organised in two main stages or adequate funding for mobility). The involvement of students in the work of the follow-up groups and their full participation in discussions and events of the Bologna process represents a considerable strength. The welcome emergence of ESIB as a key partner has made it possible to better organise the dialogue at European level between governments, institutions and students, and this was immediately reflected in the Prague Communiqué by Ministers.

In accordance with the provisions of the Bologna Declaration, Ministers in charge of higher education in signatory countries gathered in Prague with representatives of the higher education community in order to take stock of progress achieved since Bologna and to identify priorities for the future. They re-affirmed their commitment to the establishment of the European higher education area by 2010. Three more countries (Croatia, Cyprus and Turkey) were formally invited to join the "Bologna family" (which thus now counts 33 countries) and it was confirmed that the process was open to all European countries who take the commitment to undertake the necessary change/reforms required for the implementation of the Bologna/Prague agenda. Ministers expressed their satisfaction with the achievements of the last two years and entrusted to the follow-up groups a mandate to push forward. They also put a number of issues in the centre of attention for the next two years:

  • the role of life-long learning was underlined. It needs to be fully acknowledged and reflected in the process, e. g. in the common framework of qualifications and in credit transfer schemes ;
  • for the first time Ministers clearly called for the development of a (single) common framework of qualifications and for coherent quality assurance and accreditation/certification mechanisms; universities were explicitly encouraged to design scenarios for the mutual acceptance of evaluation and accreditation/certification mechanisms;
  • Ministers agreed on the importance of enhancing the attractiveness and competitiveness of European higher education to students from Europe itself

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    and from the whole world, and explicitly called for the development of a world-compatible common framework of qualifications and for a scheme of European quality certification as tools to enhance such attractiveness; they also called for more information efforts and for increased collaboration between European countries concerning transnational (i. e. imported) education;

  • among the tools able to promote both mobility and attractiveness Ministers called upon higher education to increase the development of modules, courses and curricula which are "European" by their content, orientation or organisation, in particular those leading to joint degrees.

In a similar way as institutions in Salamanca and students in Göteborg, Ministers formally acknowledged that citizens must be in a position to effectively use their qualifications, competencies and skills throughout the European higher education area.

Finally, Ministers committed themselves to continue their cooperation within the framework of an organised follow-up structure. Several steps were taken to make the process more effective; the European Commission was invited to formally join the process, and the dialogue was confirmed to include the European University Association (EUA) as well as European Association of Institutions in Europe (EURASHE, i. e. the college/polytechnic sector), ESIB and the Council of Europe. The preparatory group will enjoy more continuity then hitherto since instead of a presidency rotating with EU the successive EU Presidencies it will be chaired by the country hosting the next ministerial meeting; this will be Germany, since Ministers agreed that they will meet again in the second half of 2003 in Berlin.

Beyond these specific points in the Prague Communiqué it may be important to stress that what was striking in Prague was the impetus and determination of the vast majority of Ministers to achieve the goals set in Bologna within the shortest possible time frame.

The agenda until that date is well filled indeed: apart from the central issues mentioned by Ministers, many areas require further action at the European level, especially at the level of institutions, e. g. the further development of the two-tier degree structure, the renovation of curricula, the coherent implementation of ECTS and the Diploma Supplement, the development of basic requirements or standards in main disciplinary or professional fields, the adoption of clear definitions and a clear terminology regarding e. g. "Master’s", or "accreditation", the effective use of existing recognition tools and networks, the relationship between universities and other types of higher education institutions, the promotion of European higher education in the world, and so on...

The main conclusion at this stage is therefore very clear: the Bologna process continues and keeps gaining acceptance, breadth, depth and speed. It is backed by a determined, if not fully unanimous, political will that was reinforced earlier this year

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in the milestone meetings of Salamanca, Göteborg and Prague. It needs the enthusiasm and support of all those who want to contribute to the shaping of the future of European higher education for the benefit of students, graduates, institutions and Europe as a whole.


    *. - Artikel erschienen in: Bologna, Salamanca, Göteborg, Prague – and now? (zusammen mit G. Haug), EAIE Forum, Autumn 2001.

    1. - www.oph.fi/publications/trends2 ; www.unige.ch/eua

    2. - The statements issued at these three meetings plus other relevant documentation on the "Bologna process" can be found under www.bologna-berlin2003.de (see "Main documents").

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | July 2003

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