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Margin Notes

First decade of the Bologna process

A new report by the European University Association looks at the impact of the Bologna Accord over the last 10 years.


A new report by the European University Association released last week analyses the impact that the Bologna process has had over the last decade on higher education in Europe. The Bologna process is the effort by the 46 countries in Europe to harmonize their higher education systems. It is an ambitious reform that is being followed closely by non-European countries. (I wrote a primer on the process, “The Bologna conundrum,” in February 2009).

The Trends 2010 report is based on responses to surveys sent to 821 universities and 27 national university associations, plus data from site visits in 16 countries. The EUA presented the report at a meeting of education ministers on March 12 in Vienna to mark the official launch of the European Higher Education Area and the end of the first phase of the Bologna reform process that begun in 1999.

Inside Higher Ed had a good summary of the report, which I quote here:

The new study shows clearly that the basic Bologna formula — in which bachelor’s degrees are three years, followed in some cases by master’s or doctoral study — is now entrenched. In 2003, only 53 percent of universities reported that they were structured along Bologna guidelines. This year, the figure is 95 percent. (While prior practices varied, pre-Bologna European higher education was a mix of three- and four-year degrees for undergraduate study, with relatively few master’s programs, which have proliferated under the system.) …

In both surveys and additional research done by the association with site visits, European academics reported that the significance of the shifts was not restricted to how long it takes to earn a given degree. Rather, they said that the “harmonization” efforts, in which the various countries have tried to be sure that degrees in the same field mean roughly the same thing, have led to all kinds of curricular changes.

Generally, the academics said that the emphasis on learning outcomes led to two related shifts. One was the development of more sophisticated quality control agencies and internal quality control mechanisms. The second was that more and more of the discussion among educators, especially with regard to bachelor’s degrees, focused on what students learn and the student experience.

Overall, the European universities are also giving high marks to the process. Asked to rate the efforts to create a common European higher education region, 58 percent of the universities said that the process has been “very positive” and another 38 percent said that they had experienced “mixed results.” Only 3 percent said that there were no real differences and less than 1 percent viewed the process negatively.

Not everyone is happy, however. A related special report in University World News this past weekend notes that student groups followed the education ministers to Vienna to protest against the accord. The students taking part in the protests “were united in their opposition to the Bologna process and most believe it is used as an excuse for policies which will see business and government gain increased prosperity in return for reducing the privileges of the academic community.” (See Student protests: No time for celebration and Bologna students: Urgent need for reform.)

It is a reform process still very much in evolution and will be fascinating to watch as it continues to unfold.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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