Point of No Return to Bologna

With deadline approaching for unifying higher ed system, European universities pick up pace on aligning degrees.
May 14, 2007

In the last four years, European universities have made dramatic progress in aligning their degree programs, as they pledged to do as part of the "Bologna Process."

Eighty-two percent of European universities now have "Bologna Cycles" in place -- up from 53 percent just four years ago, according to a survey of 900 institutions released last week by the European University Association. In addition, the survey found that only 2 percent of European universities do not plan to adopt the cycles, which cover the length and substance of degrees, down from 7.5 percent four years ago.

These figures suggest, a report on the survey says, that Bologna has reached a point of no return. "Compared to four years ago, the situation has changed dramatically, to the point where now it no longer seems relevant to question whether or not structural reforms will take place," the report says.

The idea behind the Bologna Process is that European students will benefit if they move easily from country to country to earn various degrees and to find jobs. Under an agreement in 1999 among a small group of European countries, which has since expanded to 45 nations, the countries pledged to "harmonize" their systems by 2010, with the most dramatic change for some universities being a three-year timeline for more undergraduate degrees.

For American universities (and other non-European institutions), Bologna has raised a series of issues. Some educators see it as a model for international coordination in higher education for an era in which national borders may be less important. But many North American educators have feared that Bologna could make it more difficult for their institutions to recruit top European graduate students or could lead to pressure to recognize three-year European degrees as the equivalent of four-year undergraduate degrees. Some American educators have gone so far as to hope (generally off the record) that Bologna deadlines pass without the sort of coordination the countries pledged to achieve.

The new report suggests, however, that there has been progress not only in aligning degree programs, but in the ability of students to have credit transferred across national borders. In the last four years, the percentage of universities reporting that none of their students are having difficulty transferring credits increased to 48 percent, from 41 percent. The percentage reporting some students having difficulty dropped to 47 percent, from 50 percent, while the percentage reporting that many students report problems dropped to 1 percent, from 3 percent. Universities in Denmark, Portugal and Serbia and Montenegro reported that their students have the greatest ease transferring credits.

While the report documents much movement toward a common higher education system, it also notes the difficulties raised as Bologna has expanded past the developed nations of Western Europe to include many countries that were either part of or controlled by the Soviet Union -- places where higher education is still recovering.

Mobility patterns, for example, are unequal. In five countries -- Britain, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden -- at least 80 percent of colleges report significantly greater flow of students from other countries coming in than native students going abroad. Countries with the opposite experience are Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland and Turkey.

With all the emphasis on Europe, it isn't surprising perhaps that when asked about the regions in which they were most concerned about being visible and being attractive to students, Europe itself topped the list as it did four years ago. But when looking outside their region, European universities appear to be increasingly likely to gaze in the direction of Asia rather than across the Atlantic. The percentage reporting that they placed a high value on enhancing their attractiveness in the United States and Canada fell to 50 percent, from 57 percent. The percentage reporting that Asia was a priority increased to 59 percent, from 40 percent.


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