Beyond Bologna

At conference on European higher education, speakers call for much more ambitious harmonization process to compete with the U.S. and China.

October 30, 2014

More harmonization of higher education systems across the European Union may be needed if its universities are to continue to compete on the global stage, speakers said at a recent conference.

Taking an unfashionable standpoint in the light of rising anti-European sentiment in Britain and some other countries, Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, told a conference that EU-wide legislation may be required to enable the truly free movement of students and researchers.

Speaking at the Reinventing Higher Education conference at IE University in Madrid last week, Deketelaere warned that “we are not going to survive” if Europe continues with 28 separate sets of research systems and funding arrangements.

“Everything we do in the educational field and the research field is bottom-up and voluntary without allowing, as 28 member states, the EU to take any legislative initiative and harmonize a situation where there’s free circulation of students and free circulation of researchers,” said Deketelaere.

Taking part in a discussion on how European universities could move beyond the Bologna Process, which attempted to standardize higher education qualifications across the union, the professor of law at the University of Leuven described the wide variety of tuition fee arrangements as being among a set of “obstacles” that prevented the introduction of innovations such as joint cross-border degrees.

“If we want to survive competition with the U.S., China and the [emerging] BRICs [nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China], we will have to get our act together in Europe and act as one bloc from the higher education and research perspective,” Deketelaere added.

Enthusiasm for Bologna was not universal, with the conference hearing how one unnamed Nobel Prize winner had described the process as “the worst thing that ever happened” because it forced him to decide what he was going to teach 18 months in advance.

“We know innovation and control don’t go together,” said Peter Lorange, owner and president of Zurich’s Lorange Institute of Business.

Deketelaere conceded that the process had perhaps gone too far in some areas, with standardization sometimes posing a challenge for lecturers when students from a wide variety of degree programs took the same modules.

But other speakers argued that there could be benefits to more integration. Paul Norris, deputy managing director of the UK National Recognition Information Agency, a qualifications body, said that the introduction of degrees that could be easily recognized across borders had been a major help to small and medium-sized businesses.

He suggested that the next challenge was to produce degree statements that told potential employers not just the name and level of a qualification but also about the transferable skills that it gave to a graduate.

Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, a senior analyst at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, shared surveys that indicated that students who took part in more practical learning tasks such as group assignments and work placements tended to be more innovative in their careers.

Vincent-Lancrin suggested that wider adoption of practical learning methods could help to create the next generation of graduates needed for “our innovation societies.” He argued that although Bologna had helped to harmonize degree structures: “It is not very clear it has had so much impact on pedagogies and the way institutions have delivered education across Europe, and perhaps this is the next challenge.”

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