KANSAS CITY, MO. -- In March, 11 years after its inception, the European Higher Education Area became an actual place, its 47 member nations having agreed, among other things, to develop comparable and easily transferable degrees -- with a focus on learning outcomes -- in a sweeping attempt to make higher education more student-centered and promote student mobility throughout the continent. While the restructuring of the higher education system under the “Bologna Process” remains a work in progress within Europe, outside it, there’s significant interest in the implications of Bologna for higher education reform. At the NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference, which concluded Friday, a number of sessions focused on the state of the Bologna Process and how other countries, including the United States, are adapting elements of it.
The Bologna Process, a non-governmental, voluntary reform process involving 47 countries, has obvious implications for reform across U.S. states. “You could almost compare it with, dare I say it, the Department of Ed,” Tim Birtwistle, professor emeritus of law and policy of higher education at Leeds Metropolitan University, in England, said in a Friday morning session. “There is no ability [from the] top down to say, 'You must do this.' ”
And yet the transformation of European higher education in the past 11 years has been immense. The process,  which is premised on “harmonizing” higher education systems throughout Europe and promoting mobility and credit transfer, has largely revolved around improving quality assurance mechanisms and developing comparable degree frameworks and student learning outcomes in specific disciplines. As part of this, universities have moved toward standardized degree cycles (including, in many countries, the three-year bachelor’s degree, which has caused headaches for graduate admissions officers  in the United States). They’ve also stated expectations for what those degrees should mean.
A March report  on the progress of the Bologna Process by the European University Association found that 77 percent of universities have reviewed the curriculums in all departments under the Bologna Process (compared to 55 percent in 2007). In addition, 53 percent of universities said that learning outcomes have been developed  for all courses and 32 percent for some courses. “Bologna,” the association concluded, “has acted as a catalyst to improve quality of teaching and move towards student-centered learning.”
In the United States, the Lumina Foundation for Education has plans to build upon a Bologna-inspired pilot project  in which universities in three states moved toward “tuning” their degrees in six different fields of study. As part of the initial project, “Tuning USA,” faculty in Indiana (in education, chemistry and history), Minnesota (in graphic design and biology) and Utah (in history and physics) jointly conducted a four-way survey. For each discipline they asked employers, alumni, current students, and other faculty to identify general and subject-specific competencies and rank them. “So you begin to develop a picture of the subject,” explained Birtwistle, who is a consultant to the Lumina project. “You begin to frame the subject, you begin to be able to say what the subject is, and what the students know, understand and are able to do as a result of studying that subject.” Birtwistle emphasized, too, that tuning is a faculty-led process.
As Clifford Adelman, a leading American expert on Bologna, has put it in the past,  tuning balances institutional academic autonomy with the need for comparability and transparency: “The metaphor I use consistently for this is [universities are] singing in the same key but not necessarily the same song.”
That pilot project completed, another Lumina-funded project to tune engineering programs in Texas is underway. And Lumina has shifted its sights one level up, from the tuning process, at the disciplinary level, to the defining of degree frameworks. Speakers during Friday’s session noted the difficulty of defining an American baccalaureate degree without using the words “credits” or “hours.” “What do we mean as a country by what a degree represents and what the learning is that’s behind a degree?” asked Holiday Hart McKiernan, senior vice president and general counsel at Lumina.
“Why [this discussion] is significant in an American context is it redefines what we mean by quality,” she said. “And quality is student learning. Quality in our current framework is based on institutional reputation and student inputs,” i.e. the scores and backgrounds that students bring into college, rather than those they leave with. “We can’t get to the 60 percent degree attainment that we need without really focusing on quality,” she said, in reference to Lumina’s objective of improving college access. McKiernan acknowledged, however, the challenges in developing common degree frameworks in the United States, where top-down attempts at reform are suspect.
Interest in the implications of the Bologna Process has also accelerated outside Europe and the United States. “Many people from all parts of the world started looking at what’s happening in Europe and saying, ‘That affects me,’ ” said Elizabeth Colucci, of the European University Association, in a different Bologna-focused session (“Bologna Beyond Europe”) at the NAFSA conference. “Either it affects me because I work at an American university and now I’m receiving European students with three-year bachelor’s degrees into my graduate programs and I don’t know what to do with this. Or you look at it from Australia and you say, ‘Interesting, Europe wants to be more competitive and they’re going to enter into our share of the global mobile student market’…Or you look at it from Latin America and you say, ‘Interesting, we want to reform our teaching environment as well and we would ideally like to do this on a regional level because it’s more strategic. How can we do it?’ ”
There seems to be widespread interest in regional collaboration in reforming higher education and promoting student mobility, and the idea of creating a common higher education space or area has caught on. While noting that the terminology has been a bit abused, Colucci rattled off a long list of initiatives, of various stages of realization, that use the jargon of Bologna, among them: the African Union Harmonization Strategy for Higher Education, the Euro-Mediterranean Higher Education and Scientific Research Area,  and ENLACES – the Latin American and Caribbean Higher Education Area.  “This notion of creating a common higher education space or area or whatnot is gaining currency at a political level and more and more so at a practical level as well, though it’s taken so long,” Colucci said.
“We believe we have some interesting practice to share in developing tools for [degree] recognition, mobility and credit transfer,” she concluded her remarks. But nonetheless policymakers should be humble about Bologna’s application outside Europe. “Bologna is not a model for export. It is a European solution to European needs.”