Last week, Ministers responsible for higher education from the 48 countries, constituting the members of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), met in Paris for the regular triennial “Bologna Process Ministerial Conference”. Which was odd, because the substantive bits of the Bologna Process have been over for about a decade now. So, what were they talking about?
Back in the day (20 years ago, to be exact), higher education across Europe was a hodge-podge of systems. The French had initial degrees lasting two years, whereas in Germany they lasted five. Some countries started with Bachelor’s degrees (or some kind of equivalent) whereas others had only Master’s degrees. Some countries had one doctoral degree, others in practice had two (one that certified ability to research, the other a license to teach). Nothing wrong with this, of course – these were the products of centuries of domestic practice and experience. But in a Europe that was at the time very concerned about promoting deeper integration (remember that?), this bewildering variety of credentials and assessment practices was a barrier to improved labour market mobility because it was difficult for workers to have their credentials recognized outside of their home country.
The solution was to create a “European Higher Education Area” in which all countries had a reasonably similar degree structure (Bachelor/Master’s/Doctorate) with degrees of roughly similar length using a kind-of standardized use of the credit system, with graduates provided similar “diploma supplements” describing the length and content of their study programs, and all systems overseen by quality assurance systems run on roughly similar principles. Each country had to put through enabling legislation to do this, and these pieces of legislation frequently had other nation-specific pieces of higher education reform tacked on to them (which is mostly why the reform caused such an uproar in certain countries). By and large, this process was complete by 2008 or so, and has been largely successful.
For many, the success of Bologna, which was as much a bottom-up process as a top-down one, couldn’t be allowed to be a one-off. Bologna had to continue, even though that meant inventing a whole bunch of new purposes for the process that it was never very well positioned to deliver. For instance, we had new goals like higher education’s “social dimension” (mostly meaning widened accessibility) or “lifelong learning”. Worthy goals, of course, but it was never clear how such matters of ultimately national policy were to be advanced through the use of a multilateral process.
Basically, the pro-Bologna coalition is an alliance between groups, mainly from more recent EU accession countries and further east, who want an enlarged process, preferably with greater involvement from Brussels and the financial assistance that might bring (Brussels involvement is not a given – the EHEA extends well beyond the EU), and policy wonks from across the continent who dislike their own governments’ policies on research/access/lifelong learning/whatever and think they can get a better deal by appealing to a wider European authority. Thus, Bologna ministerial meetings are mostly exercises where Bologna partisans try to get a Ministerial statement as progressive as possible to use as a cudgel in domestic policy debates, while national ministers try to keep these groups happy whilst simultaneously trying as hard as possible not to actually make any hard policy commitments.
(If my Canadian readers see some similarities to our domestic debates about whether the federal government should take a more active role in higher education, they’re correct – the institutional platforms are different, but the dynamics are quite similar).
That’s not to say Bologna meetings are now meaningless. Monitoring issues and minor improvements in core issues like the diploma supplement persist. This meeting had some interesting things to say about improvements in teaching and learning and about a specific process being run by the European Universities’ Association. They also broached some issues around digitization in higher education. (For more on these, see the meeting’s final Communique, here
In a sense, Bologna has become a useful pan-European, non-EU discussion group for policymakers. It helps in setting broad policy agendas in the sense that it points institutions and senior bureaucrats’ attention towards specific issues towards which Ministers would like to see progress. Note that these are not issues where governments are expected to take the lead or craft legislation or make specific spending commitments or accept supra-national targets/objectives, the way the Bologna ultras would prefer. It is better to think of them as broad indications of the areas in which Ministers want to see the system improved, preferably through institutional initiatives which do not require new funding.
In sum: the Bologna Process finished successfully ten years ago and was replaced by a Bologna Policy Discussion Group that will probably never die. Both are worthwhile, but they are not the same thing. Just don’t bet on the nomenclature changing anytime soon.