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Continental Perspectives

March 10, 2010

PHOENIX -- College presidents were urged Tuesday to consider why most Americans think of North America as a geographic entity and not much more. The failure of American academics to embrace a common agenda for cooperation of colleges and universities in Canada, Mexico and the United States may be preventing those countries’ higher education systems from realizing some of the gains European universities are experiencing through the “Bologna process,” several experts said here on the last day of the annual meeting of the American Council on Education.

As the mostly American higher education leaders were finishing their discussions, the European University Association was releasing a major analysis of just how much the Bologna process -- under which European nations agreed to “harmonize” their higher education systems with common degree times and expectations -- has transformed higher education. The vast majority of programs have in fact been changed to comply with the Bologna standards, the report finds.

The View in North America

Robert A. Pastor, co-director of the Center for North American Studies at American University, said that the North American Free Trade Agreement should have led to much more cooperation between colleges in the three countries of North America. But NAFTA has become “a veritable piñata for pundits and politicians,” even though it has in fact increased trade in all directions in the continent.

Pastor said, however, that NAFTA has been less of a force than it might have because of the fallout from 9/11, which made crossing borders and shipping across borders more difficult. While there are positive examples of collaboration, Pastor said that they are limited when compared to what is routine in Europe.

He called on colleges in the United States to specifically encourage more students to study in Canada or Mexico -- countries that are not as high on the list of student destinations as he said they should be.

There is also a research agenda, he said. The European Union funds 15 research centers in the United States to study the European Union, Pastor noted. But the U.S. government -- while sponsoring research centers at American universities about Asia and Latin America -- doesn’t support research on North America and its various interconnections.

Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, agreed that much more should be happening. He said that, since 2004, the number of students from the United States and from Mexico studying in Canada has plateaued -- when the figures should be increasing.

He noted that there are a few “promising examples” of what more colleges could be doing to promote a North American higher education identity. For example, he cited an international business program involving San Diego State University; Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, in Mexico; and the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, in Canada, in which students study in all three countries of North America. While such programs are common in Europe and increasingly common between North American colleges and institutions in other continents, those with a North American focus remain rare, he said.

The View From Europe

The European University Association report is based on a survey of 821 universities and another survey of 27 national rectors’ conferences. Because the surveys are similar to ones conducted in previous years, the data provide for longitudinal comparisons.

The new study shows clearly that the basic Bologna formula -- in which bachelor’s degrees are three years, followed in some cases by master’s or doctoral study -- is now entrenched. In 2003, only 53 percent of universities reported that they were structured along Bologna guidelines. This year, the figure is 95 percent. (While prior practices varied, pre-Bologna European higher education was a mix of three- and four-year degrees for undergraduate study, with relatively few master’s programs, which have proliferated under the system.)

Further, the data in the report show that within universities, Bologna implementation has moved to a more comprehensive approach. Asked whether Bologna degree standards were in place for all departments, 77 percent reported yes, up from 55 percent just three years ago.

In both surveys and additional research done by the association with site visits, European academics reported that the significance of the shifts was not restricted to how long it takes to earn a given degree. Rather, they said that the “harmonization” efforts, in which the various countries have tried to be sure that degrees in the same field mean roughly the same thing, have led to all kinds of curricular changes.

Generally, the academics said that the emphasis on learning outcomes led to two related shifts. One was the development of more sophisticated quality control agencies and internal quality control mechanisms. The second was that more and more of the discussion among educators, especially with regard to bachelor’s degrees, focused on what students learn and the student experience.

Over all, the European universities are also giving high marks to the process. Asked to rate the efforts to create a common European higher education region, 58 percent of the universities said that the process has been “very positive” and another 38 percent said that they had experienced “mixed results.” Only 3 percent said that there were no real differences and less than 1 percent viewed the process negatively.

However, there were national differences. Scandinavian and Baltic nations, followed by Eastern European nations, were more likely to give the process high marks. The lowest marks came from three nations at the traditional center of European policies: Britain, France and Germany.

 

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