Higher Education Strategy Associates

Canada’s Bologna Challenge

It may not be obvious why Canada needs to think much about Bologna – we already have a common higher education area, right? – but the fact is that we do. Partly, it’s a matter of long-term market-protection; as time goes on and elements of the Bologna approach becomes more common around the world (experiments with Bologna-like structures are occurring on more or less every continent, and even in the United States), institutions wishing to attract foreign students may eventually have trouble doing so if they aren’t Bologna-compliant. But there are some short-term reasons to think about it, too – mostly because of some trade negotiations you may only barely have heard about.

A couple of years ago, Canada began negotiating the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement, or CETA. In addition to its usual strategy of not saying anything in public ever about anything, the Harper government has been extra shtum about CETA, presumably to try to keep the Maude Barlow brigade at bay. But in many ways, this is a much more far-reaching agreement any of the previous FTAs with the U.S., Mexico or whoever because they are actually talking seriously about allowing the free movement of labour.

This, as Joe Biden didn’t quite say, is a big freakin’ deal – in many ways much more far-reaching than the 1988 FTA. Europeans would be able to work in Canada visa-free as Canadians would be able to work anywhere in the E.U., visa-free. But the problem is that the right to free movement of labour doesn’t, as the Europeans themselves discovered, guarantee actual mobility. In particular, it’s tough for skilled labour to move unless employers can figure out what their credentials are worth. That is what kick-started the Bologna process in the first place – the realization that the absence of commonly understood and accepted credentials were a major barrier to mobility.

So, though CETA promises more mobility, it will be a lot more theoretical than real if our degrees aren’t Bologna-compliant. We can’t actually join Bologna (you have to be a member of the Council of Europe), but if at least we can make our systems parallel to Bologna in terms of quality assurance, degree supplements and credit transfer arrangements then we might at least get some of the purported benefits of this agreement.

That’s going to be a tall order. As we noted yesterday, Canada’s not even vaguely set up to deal with the issues Bologna throws up. But you can bet your bottom dollar that the whole issue of Bologna compliance is going to get a lot more political attention here at home just as soon as the ink dries on this agreement. Get ready.

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