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The Bologna conundrum

The Bologna process will have far-reaching effects on European higher
education, but its impact on Canada is still unclear


As the Bologna Process shakes up higher education in Europe, observers here are trying to gauge what it means for Canada’s higher education system. The process may complicate student mobility between Canada and Europe and may also affect Canadian universities’ efforts to recruit international students, but no one can say for sure.

The Bologna Process is the effort by European countries to harmonize their higher education systems through the creation of a European Higher Education Area by 2010. It is an ambitious reform that is being followed closely by non-European countries.

The initial declaration was signed at the University of Bologna in 1999 by ministers of education from 29 European countries, a number that has now grown to 46. But the origins of Bologna date back further, to the creation of the Erasmus Program in 1987.

The Erasmus Program offers subsidies to European students so that they can study for a term or two at a university within another European country. Erasmus has had great success, but also has exposed how mutually unintelligible one country’s university system is to another’s, making it difficult for students to move around. For example, some countries had five-year undergraduate degree programs, while other countries required three or four years for a degree; some countries had master’s degrees, others none at all. The methods for counting credits and assessing outcomes also were all over the map.

At its core, therefore, Bologna seeks to improve the mobility of university students and professors in Europe. It also aims to make European higher education more attractive and to build more transparent and coherent structures for things such as credit transfer, quality assurance and outcome measures.

Those involved in the Bologna Process point out that it is essentially voluntary and not based on intergovernmental treaty. Each country is free to endorse or reject the Bologna principles, although there is great pressure for countries to join in or risk being left behind.

Bologna has been “an incremental process,” said Lee Harvey, director of the Centre for Research and Evaluation at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K. and an expert on higher education policy. It started with the specific aim to ensure transparency and to enable mobility, he noted, but has become “more all-embracing” through the involvement of the European Commission, the Council of Europe, UNESCO and others.

Fiona Hunter, former head of the European Association for International Education, said Bologna has created “a sense of urgency” in many countries outside Europe. “With changes happening so quickly, everyone feels this need to stay informed about Bologna, the changes in Europe and their impact on other systems.”

Ms. Hunter said that with the rise in student mobility around the world, this type of global re-evaluation was inevitable. “This is the impact of globalization on higher education.”

Australia has frequently been cited as being at the forefront of non-European nations in its response to Bologna. It and several Asian partners launched the Brisbane Initiative in 2006, which some describe as the beginnings of a Bologna-type process to integrate Asian higher education. Other regions, including Mexico and Latin America, have been working on joint projects with Europe.

Canada’s response

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is keeping a “close watching brief” on Bologna developments and on how other non-European countries are responding, said Robert White, senior policy analyst for international relations at AUCC.

The association organized a symposium for its members in late January with European representatives to address challenges and opportunities resulting from Bologna (see sidebar). This follows an analysis of the implications of Bologna prepared by AUCC’s international relations committee and a statement of the association’s position relative to Bologna released in June 2008.

There are three main areas where Bologna will likely affect Canada, said Mr. White. First, Bologna sets three years as the standard length of an undergraduate degree (plus two years for a master’s and three years for a PhD), so the immediate issue is whether Canadian graduate admissions offices will accept these degrees as sufficient qualification for graduate programs here.

Another area where Bologna may have an impact is on international student recruitment. The Bologna Process is “a very sophisticated promotion campaign for European higher education,” said Mr. White. “So it could ultimately have an adverse effect on our ability to attract and recruit international students” as they opt for European destinations.

The third area of concern relates to student mobility, although the impact there is less clear. Existing student-exchange programs may be affected if the host country in Europe is altering its degrees. But this could also open up opportunities for Canadian institutions to conclude new exchange programs and joint degree initiatives with a wider range of European partners.

Some organizations, such as the Canada Council on Learning, believe Bologna offers an opportunity for Canada to reform its higher education sector. Judith Maxwell, former head of the Economic Council of Canada and the Canadian Policy Research Networks, wrote last May that “the best bet” for universities and colleges “is to invent their own version of the Bologna process in order to weave together a pan-Canadian system.”

At around the same time, a report by Clifford Adelman, senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in the U.S., made waves by declaring that American institutions must get on the Bologna bandwagon or risk getting left behind. The core features of Bologna “have sufficient momentum to become the dominant global education model” within two decades, he said.

Expert opinion

Craig Klafter, associate vice-president, international, at the University of British Columbia and a Bologna expert, is skeptical of such talk. People shouldn’t be so quick to “jump onto bandwagons that may not be moving in the direction they think,” he said. There are positive elements to Bologna, but there are also aspects he considers worrisome.

Among the positive is the European Credit Transfer System, a uniform system that defines credits based on student workload both inside and outside the classroom, said Dr. Klafter. This is different from the North American method of defining credits based on student contact hours with faculty members.

Canadian universities may wish to consider listing their courses using both credit systems, Dr. Klafter suggested. University of Victoria was the first in Canada to do this, for its summer programs, in the hope of attracting European students. UBC, as well, is exploring the possibility of listing both credit systems in its transcripts and course calendar.

Dr. Klafter also likes an innovation in Bologna called the diploma supplement, a document that explains in detail the course work a student has completed. He thinks this type of document would be helpful to employers and could spark a rethink in North America of the type of information contained in student transcripts.

On the minus side, he is firmly against the plan for a centralized European accreditation registry, which he said will discourage individuality and innovation among higher education institutions.

One of the “defining features” of the Canadian system is its decentralized nature, he said. “The fact is that because [higher education] is a provincial matter in Canada, it has led to much greater innovation.”

Finally, although the Bologna Process has attracted so much attention, “it is far from a done deal,” said Dr. Klafter. “There is considerable opposition, not only on the part of universities throughout the community, but increasingly within the European Parliament.”

As well, there is no uniform pace for countries to implement the Bologna process. Most of the former Eastern Bloc countries have enthusiastically embraced reforms, while some countries with older systems – such as Italy, Spain and Germany – are taking longer to adapt.

There remain “all sorts of anomalies” within the Bologna process, acknowledged Dr. Harvey of Sheffield Hallam University. But, when one considers the number of countries involved and the range of systems it started with, “the fact that there is any kind of harmonization is remarkable.”

With a report from Philip Fine, Canadian correspondent of University World News.

The take-away message

A symposium organized by the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada in late January closed with a roundtable discussion of key “take-away” messages about the Bologna Accord. They include:

We can’t ignore it

“It is a train that’s left the station,” said Morton Mendelson, deputy provost, student life and learning, at McGill University. “If we are going to participate globally [in higher education], I think we have to understand it and we have to make it work for us.”

It affects teaching

Much has been made about changes to the system, but Bologna also represents a paradigm shift away from traditional teaching to a focus on learning outcomes, noted Volker Gehmlich, a professor of economics at the University of Applied Sciences in Osnabrueck, Germany. This is a fundamental change in how institutions think about their students.

It’s an opportunity

Chris Greenshields, director of international education for the federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, said he was struck by the level of interest shown by European institutions to engage with their Canadian colleagues and to form partnerships. “This is a real opportunity for Canada and we should take it,” he said.

It’s also a challenge

One of the key aspects of Bologna is to make European higher education more attractive to students at an international level. This puts pressure on Canada’s marketing efforts for higher education. “People are becoming more and more inquisitive about institutions, about their reputation and what they’re offering. And I think that’s something we’ll need to address,” said Darcy Rollins, director of international education for the Manitoba government. “We need to work up our brand.”

The University of Alberta also has organized a conference on Bologna entitled “Canadian Perspectives on the Bologna Process,” to be held at the university March 19-20.

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  1. Crosier / February 17, 2009 at 03:59

    In the article, Dr. Klafter raises fears about the plan for a centralised European accreditation registry, which he considers will discourage individuality and innovation among higher education institutions. These fears, which are based on misunderstanding, are unfounded and should be allayed immediately.

    The European Quality Assurance Registry (EQAR) is not a centralised organisation deciding which higher education institutions and programmes may operate in Europe, and thus a force for conservatism. On the contrary it is a body which has been designed and is governed by the stakeholders – including higher education institutions, academics and students. The basic purpose of the Registry is to ensure that external QA agencies that wish to operate in Europe should abide by the European Standards and Guidelines for QA that have also been drawn up by students, higher education institutions and QA agencies, and endorsed by all European governments. In other words, by gathering together those agencies that respect the values and good practice promoted throught the European Standards and Guidelines, EQAR offers safeguards for governments and institutions that may choose to be innovative and outward looking in QA by looking beyond a national agency that this agency operates in line with agreed good practice.

    This unique model of stakeholder-led governance over QA in the European higher education area is a major achievement of the Bologna process, and one which merits serious attention in north America and other world regions. Dr Klafter and others interested can find out more by looking at the EQAR website

  2. Craig Klafter / February 18, 2009 at 15:50

    Crosier suggests that the concern I raise is unfounded. I disagree. According to EQAR, “Agencies that wish to be included on EQAR are first required to undergo an external review in line with EQAR’s Procedures in order to evidence their substantial compliance with the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance (ESG). Based on the external review, agencies can apply for inclusion on EQAR in accordance with EQAR’s formal requirements and procedures, as set out in the EQAR Procedures for Applications.” Although these “standards and guidelines” were developed in consultation with many higher education stakeholders, that is not a guarantee that they will not discourage individuality and innovation. To the contrary, requiring all national accreditation bodies that wish to be listed to comply with the same 41 pages of “standards and guidelines” is the definition of harmonization. Although I acknowledge that the “standards and guidelines” permit some flexibility in approach now, what guarantee is there that this flexibility will be maintained? US higher education accreditation standards were also developed by bodies consisting of a range of university stakeholders. Yet, in the more than 100 years of American higher education accreditation, the standards adopted have on many occasions been used to mandate political agendas. This is the lesson from the country that has the longest history of higher education accreditation.

  3. Michael Gaebel / February 20, 2009 at 06:06

    As the representative of 800 European universities and 34 national rectors’ conferences, the European University Association (EUA) is a co-founder and one of the principal stakeholders of the European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR) and one of the initiators of the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG).

    The ESG have been agreed because they support diversity of QA methods and approaches, ensure institutional autonomy, and guarantee the independence of quality assurance agencies.

    The ESG sets a general framework, with guiding principles for developing quality assurance. Any reader of this document will find it quite difficult to disagree with its content. It says e.g. that institutions should have a formal, approved, transparent QA policy ; stipulates self-evaluation and regular peer review; and stresses the importance of providing information to the public.

    This is very much in line with AUCC’s own membership requirements, and we cannot see how this could be the “definition of harmonization”, as Dr. Klafter claims. We agree with Dr. Klafter, however, that whatever flexible approach taken could potentially be converted into a straitjacket. That is true for higher education, as it is for all other areas of social and political life. This is why EUA insisted that the development of both the ESG and EQAR should be based on a partnership of stakeholders: the universities, the university colleges, the students and the QA agencies of Europe, each acting through their European representative body, i.e. EUA, EURASHE, ESU and ENQA.

    The European University Association (EUA) is fully committed to ensuring that quality assurance processes support the diversity and vitality of universities. To learn more about the activities of EUA in the quality assurance area, please check the following link:

    Michael Gaebel

  4. Crosier / February 26, 2009 at 04:35

    Dr Klafter’s concern to encourage innovation, creativity and individuality in higher education is extremely important, and indeed this issue should be continually addressed and revisited in all aspects of education systems. It is therefore entirely legitimate to worry about the impact of QA and accreditation on this lifeblood mission of education, and to point out that the lessons from the history of accreditation in the US do not bode well for the future. So far, we agree.

    The point of disagreement is on the likely impact of the EQAR. In the view of the European stakeholders who have developed and now govern the Register, it can help to reduce the space for narrow and restrictive QA practices, as agencies that wish to operate in Europe – including some US accreditation agencies that Dr Klafter may have in mind – will, if they wish to be considered legitimate in Europe by becoming part of the EQAR, need to demonstrate that they abide by the values and good practice embodied in the European Standards and Guidelines. But in Dr Klafter’s view these good intentions may be hijacked by other political agendas in the future.

    Dr Klafter’s concern should serve as an alarm bell for vigilance in Europe. We need to make sure that his dystopian vision of uniform, harmonised QA does not turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.