Graduate Education, Post-Bologna

Educators consider the impact of the process to "harmonize" European higher education on graduate schools here and abroad.
June 4, 2007

Much has been said stateside about how the standardization of three-year undergraduate degrees across Europe could impact graduate admissions policies in the United States and whether three years of European higher education can or should be viewed as equivalent to America’s four. Survey data suggest that graduate institutions are in fact moving ahead in finding their own answers to this question, Daniel Denecke of the Council of Graduate Schools said during a Thursday session at the NAFSA: Association of International Educators annual conference in Minneapolis – a session that also focused on the other side of the coin. How is the so-called "Bologna Process" transforming the face of graduate education not only in the United States, but also in, well, Europe?

“The Bologna Process is driving forward the most important reforms in higher education that are taking place within the modern era,” said David Crosier, program director for the European University Association. “What it all amounts to is, in effect, this is not just a higher education process. It’s actually a much wider process of societal transformation.”

Under the Bologna Process, named for the Italian city where the agreement for “harmonizing” European higher education was signed in 1999, the 46 participating countries are expected to create three consistent and coherent “cycles” of education – the undergraduate, master’s and doctoral levels – with the degrees sufficiently similar so they can be recognized across borders. Though the American border is proving hard to permeate: Resistance to recognizing three-year degrees at American graduate schools is rampant, although Denecke, director of best practices for the Council of Graduate Schools, reported some trends toward acceptance of the new European model Thursday.

In surveys of the Council's members, 29 percent said they did not accept three-year undergraduate year degrees in 2005; that number dropped to 18 percent in 2006. In 2005, 9 percent said they’d offer provisional acceptance to applicants with three-year degrees, a number that fell to 4 percent in 2006. The percentage of universities that indicated they’d evaluate the degree for its equivalence rose from 40 to 49 percent in the year, while the percentage of institutions that consider a student’s competency on an individual basis increased from 22 to 29 percent. “What we’re seeing,” Denecke said, “is a trend line toward greater acceptance of three-year degrees and greater nuance as to how universities are able to establish the suitability of that student to succeed in a university.”

Across the Atlantic, academics are likewise debating the preparatory value of the three-year degree in itself. Although things are changing quickly, there’s still a sense among many, “that everyone in a university who gets a bachelor's should go on and get a master’s as well,” Crosier said at the NAFSA conference. “This is maybe a problematic issue, given that the master’s was developed to be a specific cycle with its own goals, and that those goals should be built around the labor market so that people will have sufficient skills to move out of higher education if they want to.”

“Also,” Crosier added, “there is a debate about whether the master’s which are very professionally oriented can be considered in the same way as academically oriented master’s programs.”

Although no legal requirements bind European universities to move forward with the plan to form a European Higher Education Area by 2010, competition between countries to “be seen as moving ahead at least as fast as their neighbors” has fostered some rapid changes, Crosier said. In a survey of European institutions four years ago, 53 percent indicated they had three clear cycles in place. Today, the answer is 82 percent.

“Things have been changing very quickly,” Crosier said, “without people paying very much attention to it.”


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