Higher Education Strategy Associates

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.

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