Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Bologna

December 02

The Bologna Process Now

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.

March 11

A European Perspective on Three-Year Degrees

Glen Murray may be gone, but the allure of three-year bachelor’s degrees remains.  In future, my guess is that they’ll be much like the German apprenticeship system – an educational deus ex machina that successive generations of Canadian politicians will “discover” anew every couple of years.  So it’s probably worth asking, after roughly a decade of Bologna implementation, how Europeans themselves feel the whole experience is panning out. My own sense from talking to people across the continent is that, while no one thinks the three-year bachelor’s degrees are a failure, no one considers them a triumph, either.

For much of Europe, the adoption of a three-year bachelor’s degree was an act of division, not subtraction. That’s because in Germany, and most countries to its north and east, the pre-Bologna initial degree was not a 4-year bachelor’s but a 5- or even 6-year degree, equivalent to our master’s degree.  The move to divide these degrees into a 3-year bachelor’s and a 2-year master’s seemed to make sense for three reasons: first, because governments were indeed looking for ways to reduce student time-to-completion; second, the creation of a new credential seemed like an opportunity to get universities to focus on a new type of student, who wanted less theory and more practice; and third, for those who were dubious about the first two reasons, there was an overriding desire not to get left behind in the creation of a single, pan-European Higher Education Area with harmonized degree-lengths.

On the demand side, it’s been a bigger-than-expected challenge to get students to take shorter programs. In Germany, for instance, 80-90% of bachelor’s graduates go on to get a master’s, because everyone assumes that this is what businesses will want.  And they’re not wrong: in Finland, post-graduation employment rates for master’s grads is nearly 20 points higher than for bachelor’s grads (for university graduates, anyway – Polytechnic bachelor’s degree-holders do better).

It’s been no easier on the providers’ side.  When you’re used to giving 6 years of instruction to someone before giving them a credential, it’s not super-obvious how to cope with doing something useful in half the time.  In a number of cases, institutions left their five-year programs more or less unchanged, and just handed out a credential after three years (which makes at least some sense if 80-90% of people are going on anyway).  Where compression has actually occurred, what tends to happen is that institutions elect to keep courses on technical, disciplinary skills, and get rid of pesky things like electives, and courses that help build transversal skills.  The result is a set of much narrower, less flexible degrees than before.

At least part of the problem is that there hasn’t been a lot of progress in terms of finding ways to deliver both “soft skills” and technical skills in the same courses, which permit delivery of a more rounded curriculum without extending time-to-completion.  But innovative curriculum planners are in short supply at the best of times; it’s the sort of thing that probably should have been considered before engaging in a continent-wide educational experiment like this.

All of which is to say: three-year degrees are not easy to design or deliver, and they don’t necessarily work in the labour market, either.  Shorter completion times are good, but caveat emptor.

October 25

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.

October 24

Bologna – The Real Lessons

Europe’s Bologna Process may be winding down, but that’s not to say it was a failure. In fact, one could argue that one of the reasons Bologna is not quite so front-and-centre as it used to be is that it did its job spectacularly well and that barriers to both educational and labour market mobility have fallen significantly in the last decade.

There are some lessons for Canada here. Briefly, these are:

1) Improving Mobility Means Paying Attention to Quality. This is a fairly simple concept. Credits are a form of currency. If I’m going to take my credits from institution A to institution B, the folks at B are going to need some kind of exchange rate to make that work. No reliable exchange rate, no exchange. The problem in Canada is that we find actual discussions about quality, level and intensity to be, for lack of a better word, icky. Heck, we might have to say things out loud that would be upsetting to certain groups of institutions or students. For example – why do some Ontario universities require 24 hours of contact hours to be deserving of a half-credit while others requires 39? There may well be reasons to consider them equivalent, but unless they are made explicit, it’s hard to imagine how real, universal exchange rates are possible.

2) Improving Mobility Means More External Assessment. At the end of the day, any currency is based on trust. For one institution to accept credits from another requires an institution to believe that the other has credibility. Within small groups of institutions, that works. But it’s ludicrous to think that anyone at (say) Memorial really has a sense of how (say) Kwantlen is handling the transition from uolytechnic to university and hence whether credits from the latter are equivalent to their own. The role of external quality agencies is precisely to provide a neutral “seal of approval.” No seal of approval, no trust, no mobility. Simple as that.

3) Improving Quality and Harmonizing Outcomes Means More Inclusive Policy-Making. Possibly the most interesting thing about Bologna is that it wasn’t exclusively or even primarily an inter-governmental process. To do a Bologna means building a table that includes not just governments, but professional bodies, universities and students as well; it also means moving ahead with less than full consensus when necessary to preserve forward momentum. In Canada no mechanism exists to call these parties together, and important bodies like CMEC and AUCC get queasy without consensus.

Doing a Bologna in Canada would thus require overcoming some deep-set habits. Yet, it’s something we may need to do, and soon. More tomorrow.

October 23

Does Bologna Still Have a Pulse?

For the last decade or so, pretty much all North Americans have heard about European higher education is “The Bologna Process.” In fact, Bologna has become a sort of Rorschach test for higher education types in the rest of the world. Canadians tend to see it through the prism of our own federal-provincial relations issues. For the most part, die-hard centralists like using it as a rhetorical drum to beat for more (e.g., “Europe is creating a common higher education area and we can’t even get our provinces to submit data to Statscan”). This is, of course, a more or less complete misunderstanding both of what Bologna was trying to achieve (Canada already has a common higher education area) and how it was trying to achieve it (Bologna is definitely not a top-down affair).

Part of the problem for outsiders is that Bologna isn’t really one thing. There’s “formal” Bologna, by which I mean the original objectives of the Bologna signatories (i.e., creating a common European higher education area, including a three-cycle system of – roughly – three years, two years and three years respectively; a European credit transfer system; and a common diploma supplement designed to explain the content of a degree). Then there’s “informal” Bologna, by which I mean “all the other cool stuff happening in Europe.” Of this there is a fair bit, including a Copenhagen Process for vocational education, the Tuning Process for harmonizing educational outcomes at the subject-level and the various initiatives which come out of the biannual meetings, such as providing higher education with a social dimension, the student-centred learning “mission”, etc., etc.

Europeans involved with the Bologna process often portray all this activity as one big intiative, which is why outsiders – who don’t follow the minutiae of the various communiques and conferences – tend not to distinguish between “formal” and “informal” Bolognas. But there is a big difference. “Narrow” Bologna actually ended a few years ago, just as soon as all the national governments finished passing the various laws required to make it happen. “Broad” Bologna is still going on, but the engagement of governments in the process has diminished enormously. In fact, it’s mainly pushed along by a group of education policy nerds who are bright, delightful and engaging, but whose agendas – while often being deeply cool – are simply ever less central to national education bureaucrats’ plans. Its main use now is as a series of networks which help funnel good management practice across the continent from (more or less) north and west to (more or less) east and south.

I wouldn’t say Bologna’s dead – but it’s not as alive as it used to be, either.

November 02

Many Bolognas

I spent part of October in Bucharest at the Bologna Future of Higher Education conference, trying, as I always do at these things, to get my head around what is happening in European higher education.

Part of the problem of trying to follow the Bologna Process is that there are many Bolognas that exist side by side. There is the “formal” Bologna – which is actually a crashing bore, unless you’re really into diploma supplements and qualifications frameworks and quality assurance processes – and the “informal” Bologna of student-centred learning, social dimensions and the Tuning process (basically, all the stuff Cliff Adelman writes about), which is all pretty groovy and gets most of the attention.

There is the Bologna of the Communiqués, the strong declarations about progress made and future challenges to be met, and the much messier Bologna of the Trenches, where the high phrases meet the cold reality of institutional reality. The latter, believe me, is a heck of a lot messier than anyone lets on.

There is European Bologna, which is what everyone agrees to, and there are the many Local Bolognas. Pretty much every country has its own, independent Bologna process because – being a process rather than a set of objectives or legal obligations – most national governments have been able to slip all sorts of local reforms (sometimes petty and irritating, sometimes decades overdue) over on higher education systems. As a result, the Bologna process has proceeded differently in different countries.

Finally, there is the Bologna of the Politicians (and sometimes Rectors, too), who deal in high politics, and the Bologna of the Education Policy Nerds (my peeps!), who have managed to use the brief policy opening offered by the initial flood of Bologna-mania to initiate and sustain a number of continent-wide discussions about a variety of pedagogical, curricular and managerial modernizations.

It is kind of amazing how all of these different Bolognas manage to co-exist side by side. We Canadians sometimes like to think of ourselves as flexible and pragmatic compared to those stuffy and inflexible continentals, but I’m pretty sure we’d have a nervous breakdown trying to deal with what Europeans take in their stride.

How do they do it? Basically, they don’t get hung up on small ideas like unanimity and full compliance. They get a critical mass of institutions or countries together with a bunch of stakeholders and start moving in one direction on an issue. If the others don’t join or don’t catch up, that’s their problem.

We could do that, too, on files like learning outcomes or credit transfer, if we really tried, and someone were willing to start the ball rolling. But it’s an approach so foreign to our psyche, my guess is it will never happen.