Ten Years of Bologna: Threats and Opportunities for Students

More than a decade has passed since 29 European countries adopted an ambitious agenda of reforms with the view to create the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). The reforms were intended to harmonize Europe's higher education systems, facilitate mobility and employability of students across the continent, and increase the European dimension in higher education. The process of reform -- known as the Bologna Process, which has since expanded to include the current 47 countries -- has subsequently added to this agenda additional ideals such as equal access to higher education, student-centered learning, and student participation in quality assurance and governance within their institutions.

All students and Ph.D. candidates should "know that there is space for their needs, that there is space for their voice to be heard." --Vassiliki Chatzipetrou

The 10 years since the first reform principles were adopted in the Italian city of Bologna have indeed brought major changes to higher education across Europe. Yet how well and fully this package of reforms has been implemented varies hugely across countries, and even across institutions -- and not all of the changes have been received warmly. Recently, European students have protested that the Bologna Process changes have led to inflexible degree programs, increased workloads, and more examinations.

But student protests don't mean that, on the whole, the reforms are bad for students. "I would rather use Bologna as an advantage, not look at it as a threat," says Ligia Deca, chairperson of the European Students' Union (ESU), one of eight consultative members in the policy debate on higher education at the European level, and one that represents the students' perspective. Rather than dwelling on shortcomings, she encourages students to take advantage of the Bologna Process to bring about changes at their institutions and in their national governments: "If you want to fight for more quality in higher education, you can use Bologna. If you want to fight for more financial support, you can use Bologna. You shouldn't just blame Bologna."

A new landscape for higher education

(European Students' Union)
Ligia Deca

At the heart of the Bologna Process is an effort to make Europe's various national education systems more transparent and compatible. Its most visible achievement so far is standardizing higher education systems into three academic cycles: a 3- or 4-year bachelor's degree, a 1- or 2-year master's degree, and a doctorate. Before Bologna, each country had its own approach, with some countries' first degrees, for example, taking far longer than others. These differences led countries, often, to be reluctant to recognize each other's degrees, limiting the mobility of graduates and students across Europe. According to a March 2010 report from the European University Association (EUA), 95% of 821 higher education institutions surveyed now have in place the three-degree structure in most fields.

To further enhance student mobility, the Bologna Process led to the widespread adoption of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System. ECTS introduces degree credits, allows them to be obtained through a broader range of learning experiences (dissertation work, laboratory projects, internships, and so on) -- and should increase flexibility within programs and facilitate the transfer of those credits among other programs and institutions. The EUA survey found that 88% of institutions now report using the ECTS system to count credits for bachelor's and master's degree programs, and 90% used the system to count transfer credits.

The Bologna Process also defines specific learning outcomes for each degree cycle and calls for student involvement in assuring the quality of higher education. These changes have triggered a cultural shift toward a more student-centered approach across Europe, including more student input into courses of study and student involvement in academic decision-making.

The changes have been especially rapid and profound in Ph.D. training, with the Bologna Process spurring many universities to offer structured Ph.D. programs in place of, or in addition to, traditional ad hoc Ph.D. training. According to the EUA report, today about one-half of Europe's universities have doctoral schools, compared with 29% in 2007. "Doctoral education has been massively reformed, in a very good way," says senior adviser Andrée Sursock of EUA. More attention is being paid to supervision, with many institutions moving away from the old master-apprentice relationship and toward a system of several supervisors. Greater emphasis is also being put on transferable skills that serve not only academic scholars but also professionals who "may have research careers in other parts of society," says David Crosier, education system analyst at Eurydice, the E.U. organization that provides information on European education systems and policies.

The Bologna Process has also motivated educational systems and institutions to add services for students. Ninety-one percent of European institutions now report offering academic orientation services, 83% offer career guidance, and 66% offer psychological counseling, according to the EUA survey. Bologna has shown institutions that "they needed to look at the student in a much more holistic way," Sursock says.

More to be done

(European University Association)
Andrée Sursock

Although core elements of EHEA have largely been put in place, in many locations the reform process -- and the students -- is suffering from poor and incomplete implementation. Countries joined the process at different times, and factors such as local cultures and political agendas have influenced how Bologna is interpreted and implemented. "You find a big variety of how things are being addressed," even within the same country, Crosier says.

Some institutions and countries have chosen what Crosier calls a cosmetic implementation, whereby "there's an attempt to give the impression that reforms are being implemented when the reality is different." Some universities have merely split long, integrated degrees into separate bachelor's and master's degrees. "They don't change their approach to thinking about the programs and the curriculum, and maybe even in some cases they squeeze more content into less time," Crosier says.

The ECTS system has been especially misunderstood, Deca says. Institutions were meant to link credits to student workload and the newly defined learning outcomes, but many considered only one or the other, she says. At some institutions, this translated into more tests; according to the EUA survey, 44% of the institutions that have redesigned study programs based on study units or modules reported an increase in the number of examinations. "The whole modularization process has rather brought about very busy and very inflexible degrees," Deca says. Bologna was intended to improve mobility, yet squeezing more material and more exams into less time could instead make it more difficult for students to study abroad. Such concerns have sparked many protests in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, Deca adds.

According to the EUA report, 54% of institutions also report that when they do find the time to go on short periods of study abroad, some students are having problems getting their credits recognized upon returning. Deca deplores what she calls the "pick and mix" approach some countries have taken to the reforms. "So then the agenda turns against students because in fact it does not tackle their main issues; this is why Bologna is made to function as a package," she says.

Many student protests against the Bologna Process have stemmed from what Deca calls the "lack of attention to [the] social dimension" -- that is, assuring that the student body entering, participating in, and completing degree programs at all levels reflects the diversity of the national populations. The Bologna reforms are supposed to eliminate social and economic obstacles by promoting financial support and comprehensive student-service systems. But, as reported in a recent ESU study, just nine national student unions list equal opportunity as a priority for the higher education institutions in their respective countries, whereas 14 say it isn't a priority and another nine say the situation depends on the institution. According to the EUA report, although nearly 80% of European higher education institutions have a policy in place to support students with disabilities and 69% to support socioeconomically disadvantaged students, less than one-quarter have specific policies for ethnic minority groups and immigrants.

Behind such poor implementation is a lack of adequate funding, Crosier says. "You've got a lot of pressure on academic administrators ... to adapt to a new reality, but they are not being given the resources to be able to do it well, and that means that those who are suffering from that process are the students." And despite a process that was envisioned to include all stakeholders, students are often not involved in planning and decision-making and can only react to what they see as negative changes. Most often, the protests against recent changes aren't about what's outlined in the Bologna vision; rather, they are rather "contesting the fact that the changes have not been thought through, planned properly, and funded properly," Crosier says.

A related issue is misinformation and confusion about what the Bologna Process is and isn't, Deca says. Implementation of the Bologna Process can be tainted by other European, national, and institutional political agendas. "Sometimes, Bologna is the usual suspect that [students] blame for their problems, but this is because they don't see the European [Bologna] agenda at the national level," Deca says. "Measures that are not student-friendly" are sometimes "wrongly promoted under the Bologna umbrella," she adds -- measures such as the introduction of tuition fees, which students in Germany and other countries have demonstrated against. "The main misconception is equating Bologna with a neoliberal kind of European Union–developed plot to make higher education a commodity rather than a public responsibility," Crosier says. "There probably are indeed trends and tendencies towards this kind of neoliberal approach to higher education. It's just that it's got nothing to do with Bologna," Crosier adds.

Getting included in the process of change

(Courtesy, Vassiliki Chatzipetrou)
Vassiliki Chatzipetrou

National governments and institutions have much work to do before the Bologna vision of a pan-European, flexible, inclusive higher education system is realized. While the process is ongoing, students can do much to encourage change for the better. "Where they are being excluded from processes of change, they should continue to protest and lobby to be involved," Crosier says. "We now have what we want in the European ministerial communiqués. Now the chance needs to be taken at the national level, where student organizations and students ... should ring the bell at the door of their ministry and point [out] the commitment that they've made," Deca says.

All students and Ph.D. candidates should "know that there is space for their needs, that there is space for their voice to be heard," says Vassiliki Chatzipetrou, policy officer for the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers. Eurodoc is focused on the third cycle in the Bologna Process: the Ph.D. "Up to now, most doctoral candidates across Europe ... have a student status," which means no employment contract or social security benefits, Chatzipetrou says. By declaring in 2005 that Ph.D. candidates have a dual role as both students and early-career researchers, the Bologna Process opened the door to "the recognition of the professional status of doctoral candidates."

Students can also play a role locally by influencing the way their institutions implement the Bologna vision. "They can ask for more student-oriented ways of teaching and ways for organizing the institution," Deca says. EHEA calls for student representation on departmental, faculty, and university committees; Sursock says that students need to take advantage of those opportunities, if only by voting for student representatives.

Above all, the Bologna process makes this a time of opportunity for students, Deca says. "There are lots of threats, but the way to go and overcome all this is basically trying to get informed, get involved, and use the tools that we have, including the Bologna process, to make the system help you instead of stop you from reaching your full potential."

Photo (top): Students at the Sorbonne in Paris (AmitLev)

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.

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