Governments have used the Bologna Process -- an effort to "harmonize" European higher education -- as a "Trojan Horse" to force through controversial reforms of their higher education systems, university rectors from across Europe were told last week.
Speaking at the European University Association conference in Palermo, Sicily, last week, Alex Usher, president of the Canadian firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, warned university leaders that unless they “stop talking about Bologna and find some new things to discuss,” they risk undermining local and regional policy.
Declaring the European Higher Education Area a success, Usher said rectors should "just declare victory and go home" to encourage greater diversity between institutions and countries taking part in the Bologna Process.
Sybille Reichert, director of Reichert Consulting for Higher Education, in Switzerland, agreed that "under the heading of Bologna, all sorts of other reforms on autonomy and governance [have been implemented]."
The resulting wave of reform across Europe led to widespread student protests over Bologna, despite a lack of understanding of its common goals. The opening ceremony of the EUA conference was disrupted as Sicilian students demonstrated outside the venue, protesting against massive cuts to the Italian education budget that had led to an immediate increase in student tuition fees, alongside a host of other reforms.
Taking the floor of the conference, a spokesman for the group of protesters said they were part of a movement that stood "against this government and what they are doing to public universities in Italy. They are proposing reforms that amount to a patriarchy within universities to give more power to the rectors and less power to the representatives for students and researchers."
Usher said governments and university principals had become so obsessed with the Bologna Process that key local higher education policy decisions had been overlooked, resulting in even greater homogenization of the European academy.
"This pan-Europe policy is creating policy at a local level, and that can’t be a good thing. Just because a policy doesn’t have a European dimension, it doesn’t mean it isn’t important," he said.
He argued that Europe should be a "lab for new ideas. Now more than ever we need governments and institutions to experiment and be bold. We need to compare notes about what works and what does not."
Jean-Marc Rapp, president of the EUA, said it was "no surprise" that students objected to Bologna because of the way regional governments had portrayed it to the public.
"In many cases, the governments that were implementing Bologna did realize that their country … needed to reform their system so it would be more efficient. They said to the public: 'Bologna is there, we need to reform.' People would understand that Bologna demands that reform, which wasn’t the case," he said.