Beyond the Bologna Process



My advice to the 47 higher-education ministers headed to Armenia in May to discuss the future of the Bologna Process is: Celebrate Bologna’s extraordinary achievements and then bid it goodbye.

The Bologna Process, formally begun in 1999, is the boldest higher-education reform ever undertaken in Europe and perhaps in the world. Its goal was that countries would voluntarily make their higher-education systems more compatible and coherent across international lines.

To do this, a two-degree structure of bachelor’s and master’s degrees was initially agreed upon, with doctoral degrees subsequently added, which every signatory country would adopt. The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System was then created to allow the comparison of study programs and qualifications. Various policies were put in place to help faculty, students, and staff move across national borders. The Bologna Process thus became intimately connected to the European Union’s economic and integration goals involving the free movement of goods, services, and people.

One result has been the emergence of a common discourse about higher education that allows its stakeholders to compare, assess, and act in ways that are transparent and understandable. The reforms are reference points on how all 47 national systems are doing, an occurrence that would have been inconceivable without Bologna.

When the ministers meet in Armenia, working groups will report on reform adoption, quality assurance and transparency, lifelong learning, mobility and internationalization, and social issues related to higher education. The ministers will discuss policies on access, portability of scholarships and loans, student-centered learning, employability, common recognition of professional qualifications, doctoral training, and much more. Students, historically unnoticed, now have a place at the table. A vigorous higher-education research enterprise has also emerged. Before Bologna, European research on higher education ranged from nonexistent to inadequate, rarely crossing national borders. Bologna has enabled this to change. For policy makers interested in evidence-based decisions, the consequences are potentially momentous.

Obviously, not everything has been successful everywhere. Some countries have only superficially adopted the new degree structures, and accepting credits across borders remains bureaucratically difficult. Student and faculty mobility falls short of expectations, and the mobility that does exist tends to be from south and east to north and west, resulting in \”brain drain.\” One could even say that Bologna corrupted the language of higher education with its focus on economic outcomes and labor markets, and that it waited too long to address inequities.

These limitations are being considered, and the process will continue to evolve, so the ministers could conclude that the wisest course is to reaffirm Bologna and march into the future. That would be a mistake.

But if it’s so successful, why kiss Bologna goodbye? Because times have changed. The belief that an entire region within Europe and stretching into Central Asia could develop common systems of governance, finance, law, foreign relations, and higher education has essentially collapsed.

Bologna itself has led to interest groups whose identity is so interwoven with the original reforms that they defend those reforms vigorously, often to the point of rigidity. To counter this, new reformers must inevitably show how bad the existing situation is and have to overstate the benefits of their proposed reforms. Charting new directions cannot alone prevent rigidity and conflict, but it can help keep more people in touch with the reality that with most reforms, good things happen along with bad things, and one needs to change perspective and move on.

I suggest five new directions:

• Admit that it is expensive to create first-class higher-education institutions. Clarity on real costs allows countries to make realistic decisions. And since only a few countries have the money or want to spend it in this way, one possible outcome will be a clearer recognition of choices, including decisions to focus on funding for selective excellence and to preserve worthwhile programs. Ironically, that may result in more cooperation within countries and across national borders.

• Take responsibility for students’ well-being. For example, emphasize career guidance and academic support services, which are virtually nonexistent in Bologna Process countries, where the basic philosophy is that faculty members should show up to teach, and students to learn. Americans have a better grasp of responsibility to students, though they tend to go overboard so that student life overwhelms academics.

• Create a class of incoming students with varied skills, social classes, and ethnic backgrounds. That would replace a system that relies solely on high-school grades and national test scores. Students who voluntarily work in kindergartens, help asylum seekers adjust, spend time becoming musicians, artists, dancers, photographers, or who must work at low-wage jobs, are likely to become exactly the professionals and citizens who are needed.

• Engage in the development of learning games and inquiry-based exercises that require students to discover knowledge and to assess the validity of what is found. A disturbing disjunction has evolved between where and how young people learn and where and how they are formally taught. This disjunction serves neither them nor higher-education institutions well.

• Meld theory and practice so that the learning process reflects the ways students will live as citizens and professionals. Few things make less educational sense than the traditional notion that theory is learned in the university and practice is learned in technical schools or in one’s later professional life. The separation serves primarily to isolate higher-education institutions from the very students they are teaching. This change will require rethinking the definition of a professor, introducing more clinical appointments into the faculty, and developing internships that are genuine learning experiences.

It is time to reinvent the international higher-education-reform movement with new ideas, new passions, and a much greater willingness to speak directly with the communities affected.

Author Bio: Marvin Lazerson is a professor of higher-education policy at Central European University, in Budapest, and an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania.