'The Challenge of Bologna'

February 18, 2010

The "Bologna Process," under which European nations have agreed on common higher education standards -- with the goal of making degrees and students recognized and respected across borders -- continues to attract increased attention in the United States. In his new book, Paul L. Gaston, Trustees Professor at Kent State University, considers the evolution of Europe's plans and their impact on American higher education. His book is The Challenge of Bologna: What United States Higher Education Has to Learn From Europe, and Why It Matters That We Learn It (Stylus). Gaston responded to e-mail questions about the book's themes.

Q: Why should American academics care about Bologna?

A: We share most of Europe’s priorities for higher education. We believe that increased accountability should support responsible comparisons of programs and institutions, that students should have less difficulty in transferring academic credits, that the credentials we offer should be more easily understood by the public, that teaching should be more intentional in the light of a consensus on outcomes, and that as a nation we should remain highly competitive in attracting international students. We have important initiatives under way in many of these areas. But the Bologna Process represents a coordinated commitment to such reforms that is monitored continually throughout the continent. With one decade of progress to report, Europe can offer us a useful example. The issue is not whether we should “import” the Bologna Process, but whether we can learn from its coherence and sense of urgency.

Q: Has Bologna lived up to its promise (from a European perspective)?

A: Yes -- and no. Without question, Europe has accomplished much since the 1999 Declaration. But fault lines have appeared. For instance, implementation of the three-year baccalaureate degree has discouraged greater mobility among undergraduates, as students challenged by compact curriculums offered at a faster pace are staying put. The recession has not helped, in that changes in the funding of higher education, while not part of the Bologna reforms, have provoked resistance to the process. And completion of national “qualifications frameworks,” explaining educational attainment according to degree levels, has proved to be more difficult than anticipated. Bologna will declare victory this spring with the end of its first decade and the formal recognition of the European Higher Education Area. But the fact that the process has now been extended to a second decade suggests that its promise has been met only part way.

Q: Has the growth in countries participating in Bologna changed the process?

A: Decidedly. Through its expansion from the initial group of 29 participating countries to the present 46, “from Shannon (Ireland) to Vladivostok (Russia),” the potential of the Bologna Process to achieve significant higher education reform across the expanse of two continents has become even more apparent. But with expansion has come a far greater range of national differences in higher education governance, in assumptions about the purposes of a college education, and in the depth to which structures, schedules, and other conventions are rooted in national cultures. Hence the biennial surveys of the reform initiatives, country by country, now suggest increasing disparity from one to another in progress sought and progress made. Students in Europe speak of an “à la carte” approach to the Bologna initiatives in some countries: focus on some priorities, ignore others.

Q: How does Bologna -- to take the title of your book -- "challenge" American higher education?

A: The Bologna Process represents first a challenge by Europe to the United States and the rest of the world. It was conceived and implemented as part of a continental commitment to European economic ascendancy, with higher education as an important means to that end. But Bologna also poses a specific challenge to American higher education. Europe seeks to attract international students who are now more likely to study in the United States, the United Kingdom, or Australia. And Europe seeks to make its own students more competitive on the world stage. The three-year baccalaureate in Europe challenges us to document more persuasively the value of a four-year degree offering the advantages of a liberal education. And there’s the issue of the mobility of talent, an important factor in economic growth. While we continue to increase out-of-state tuitions at public universities, discouraging students from crossing state lines to secure a college education, Europe is prompting its students to “study abroad” within Europe. Above all, Bologna has challenged U.S. higher education by pursuing priorities that are ours as well and by making more progress towards achieving them.

Q: Given the diversity of American higher education, how could Bologna principles be applied in the United States? Should they be applied?

A: Well, Europe presents no less broad a range of institutional types, degree designations, and assumptions about who should be educated and for what reasons. The Bologna Process represents precisely a commitment to surmount those disparities in favor of higher education that is more easily understood, more accountable to the public, more intentional with regard to its outcomes, and more attractive to the world’s scholars and students. But, no, while there is much we can learn from Bologna’s example, we cannot and should not simply adopt its initiatives as our own. However, as your question suggests, there are important principles behind a coordinated continent-wide effort that expresses a compelling sense of urgency. We would be wise to observe those principles: agree on a small number of compelling priorities that serve both students and the national interest, commit to the urgent pursuit of such priorities according to a carefully monitored and documented process, and sustain a commitment to priorities that may take longer than anticipated to accomplish. But we can improve on Bologna. Our commitment to diversity in its other sense, the value we place on the pursuit of learning within a multicultural environment, gives us an advantage on the world stage. And our high regard for the outcomes of a liberal education -- intellectual agility, the capacity for continued learning, an ability to work with others, a sense of civic responsibility -- stands us in good stead. Attentive to the distinct values of American higher education, we should learn from the Bologna Process but endeavor to go it one better.

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