I was in Bucharest last week at the Bologna Process Researchers Conference (I chaired the Social Dimension/Equity Track), hosted by Romania’s amazingly productive higher education agency, UEFISCDI (don’t ask what it stands for). So I thought it would be a good time to talk about where Bologna is at these days.
The Bologna Process started back in 1998, essentially as a labour mobility measure. Prior to Bologna, Europe had a bewildering variety of first degrees, lasting anywhere from two to six years, all of which had different names. This made labour mobility more difficult. How is a Portuguese employer supposed to understand what skills the holder of a Lithuanian first-degree possesses? Even if she could read it, she’d have no idea what the degree consisted of, what skills were imparted, etc.
Bologna was meant to deal with that in two ways. The first was to harmonize degree structures and lengths. Thus, the formula “3+2+3” for Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorates. This formula is a bit reductionist, and first degrees can in many cases still be more than 3 years (the Scots, for instance, kept their four year structure), and can still have different names (the French got to keep “license”, since “Baccalaureat” was already taken). But for the most part harmonization was achieved.
The second part of Bologna dealt with Quality Assurance. If this new European Higher Education Area (EHEA) was going to make sense – that is, if students from Bulgaria were going to be able to seamlessly transfer into Finnish universities (or whatever) – there had to be some way to assure that the degrees in different parts of the EHEA were in fact compatible. This led to the creation of harmonized Quality Assurance processes to ensure this was the case. And while I’ve never heard anyone claim that a degree from an Albanian university is equivalent to one from (say) a French university, this common framework nevertheless seems to have had a positive effect on student mobility.
The problem is that the heavy lifting on Bologna – actually changing national legislation with respect to degrees and quality assurance – was all finished years ago. So what is there to keep the “Bologna Process” going? Well, there are on-going implementation issues. But more importantly there is the attempt to keep adding items to the supra-national agenda – things such as teaching and learning, lifelong learning, the “social dimension” (i.e. equity).
Unfortunately, while these are all interesting issues, the implementation of any of these are fundamentally stuck at the national level. The usual suspects might want to supra-nationalize things like access – in the same way that here in Canada they clamour for a federal role to oversee those mean, nasty provinces – but it ain’t going to happen.
In the absence of anything implementable, “Bologna” is increasingly a free-floating forum for higher education modernizers to exchange ideas and experience. That’s not nothing – I’d argue Canada could use a bit more of this, for instance – but it’s not very compelling, either. The Process is thus beginning to resemble a car without an engine.
Can it be revived? Yes, and I would argue that it probably will be. Soon enough, people will start asking the question “so, this EHEA… what’s it for, exactly?” And given the state of the European economy, the answer to that question is surely going to be “growth”. That implies a focus on education quality, innovation, technology transfer, and university-business co-operation.
That’s a somewhat different set of preoccupations than the ones now at the centre of Bologna. The shift should be interesting.