This month was significant for European higher education, with the Bologna Process Ministerial Conference on May 14-15 in Yerevan, Armenia. This was the ninth conference since June 1999, when the European ministers responsible for higher education signed the Bologna Declaration, which paved the way for the most intense intergovernmental cooperation in higher education policy in the world.
The Bologna Process has involved a voluntary convergence and coordinated reform of higher education systems across the member countries of the European Union and beyond. The aims have been to promote the mobility of students and staff and to enhance the quality and international competitiveness of European higher education. In 2010, the Bologna Process brought about a formal launch of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).
Initially 30 countries signed the Bologna Declaration; with the accession of Belarus this month there are now 48 members. Sjur Bergan of Council of Europe commented after the conference about the significance of the accession of Belarus: “Belarus is the first country to accede after the formal establishment of the EHEA in 2010 and the first to do so with a road map. This could very possibly set a precedent for any later accessions.”
Bologna has had a number of successes. A common three-cycle degree structure was adopted across countries. The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System makes it possible for mobile students to transfer course credits acquired at one institution to get recognized by another institution. The European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Europe, of which ministers adopted a revised version in Yerevan, and the European Register of Quality Assurance Agencies ensure that all countries have compatible internal and external quality assurance procedures.
Despite these undoubtedly positive developments, there has been a sense across EHEA that the Bologna Process has been running out of steam. The past few years have been devoted to ensuring that structural reforms included in past Bologna recommendations happened in all member countries. Of course, policy implementation on such a grand scale, across almost 4,000 higher education institutions in Europe, is not without problems.
To the frustration of many members, much of the energy of the Bologna Follow-Up Group, the governing body of the process, has been channeled into detailed questions about decision structures and processes. The Yerevan Ministerial Conference has therefore special significance: the Bologna Process needed a new sense of purpose to bring the governments together and re-energize international cooperation within the EHEA. And this indeed happened.
Two objectives have landed naturally in the just-adopted Yerevan Ministerial Communiqué. One is fostering employability of graduates. Record youth unemployment has been called the most urgent problem in the Eurozone as well as Europe at large. The unemployment rate for people 29 and younger in the European Union is 19 percent, the highest in at least 10 years. In Spain, the figure was 53 percent in November 2014; it was 49 percent, in Greece, followed closely by Croatia and Italy. Higher education is seen as one key pillar in Europe’s vision to fight unemployment among young people, preventing them from becoming a “lost generation” and source of social upheaval.
And it could be expected that the Yerevan Ministerial Communiqué was to include this objective, even if higher education alone, of course, cannot solve the problem that is so clearly linked to economic growth and also labor regulations. The communiqué emphasizes the need to ensure that graduates possess competencies that will make them employable. To achieve this there should be a better dialogue between higher education institutions and employers, a good balance between theoretical and practical components in curricula, and continued support for international mobility for study and work placement. The ministers also signaled that tracking graduates’ career developments was helpful.
The other objective is to make higher education systems more inclusive. This objective has become all the more urgent in light of recent studies showing that in many European countries, citizens with an African or Middle Eastern background are overwhelmingly not entering higher education. One cannot help wondering if this pattern is related to the worrying radicalization of immigrant youth from Middle East and North Africa. The drafting of the ministerial communiqué took place under the shadow of the tragic Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris and the terrorist attack in Copenhagen in February. The ongoing aim of the Bologna Process has also been for higher education to contribute to developing democracy and democratic culture.
The communiqué expresses the commitment by the ministers to widening participation in higher education and to improve completion. They seem to want to support more higher education institutions that cater to “different types of learners," including life-long learners. At the same time, the ministers noted that while there needs to be a clearer demarcation between university and nonuniversity sectors, students should be able to transfer from one sector to the other or between academic and more professionally oriented tracks. Finally, three types of mobility are accentuated in the communiqué: for students and staff from conflict areas, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and mobility of teacher education students.
New is the objective of “enhancing the quality and relevance of learning and teaching." This is the first time that quality of teaching and learning has been emphasized in such strong and unambiguous terms. In the early Bologna communiqués, teaching and learning were completely absent; these subjects were first brought onto the agenda in 2005 in reference to quality assurance, and, from 2007, a focus on student-centered learning.
Yet the quality of teaching and learning is far from satisfactory and varies significantly across European systems and institutions. In some countries, governments have developed specific polices directed toward the advancement of teaching and learning, and have endowed agencies or research centers to guide and to support basic and applied research and capacity-building activities (such as training events, exchange of best practices, etc.). However, the majority of countries do not have a strategy for the advancement of teaching and learning or specific structures to support it. At best, higher education institutions are developing their own units for supporting excellence in teaching and learning or funding teaching development programs. At worse, higher education teachers are left to their own devices to improve their teaching (or not) when alerted by the outcomes of student satisfaction surveys.
In Yerevan, the ministers have committed to support higher education institutions in pedagogical innovation, exploring the use of digital technologies for learning and teaching and in better linking learning and teaching with research, innovation and entrepreneurship. They expect the institutions to recognize and support quality teaching and to involve students and other stakeholders in curriculum design and in quality assurance. The ministers also affirmed the existing practice whereby study programs develop clear descriptions of learning outcomes and workload, flexible learning paths, and appropriate teaching and assessment methods.
Where do we go from here? History shows that the political limelight of the ministerial conferences and the political weight of the ministerial communiqué have had important implications for higher education reforms across member countries. While intergovernmental cooperation is voluntary and recommendations expressed in communiqués are not binding, there is a clear political commitment expressed by the ministers to enhance the quality and relevance of learning and teaching, foster graduate employability and make higher education systems more inclusive. Such commitment carries weight in Europe.
The Bologna Follow-Up Group will come up with specific targets. The governments will adopt the recommendations in their national policies and devise instruments to carry them out. The European Commission will focus funding -- through its flagship program, Erasmus+ and possibly also from research funding in Horizon 2020 -- toward reaching these objectives.
Such supports makes it possible for formation of new networks of multiple stakeholders (representatives of higher education institutions, academics, students, business communities, higher education researchers, quality assurance agencies and representatives from governments and intergovernmental organizations) with a shared focus on enhancing the quality of teaching and learning within the EHEA.
While important questions remain about the notions of teaching, learning and quality enhancement that will inform this work, the development of such networks could have the power to transform teaching and learning practices across European universities. By the time the of the next EHEA Ministerial Summit in 2018, the next set of European higher education reforms will be well underway, tackling the complex area of learning and teaching, graduate employability, and inclusive higher education.
Manja Klemenčič is a fellow and lecturer in sociology of higher education at Harvard University and editor in chief of European Journal of Higher Education. Paul Ashwin is a professor of higher education at Lancaster University. They jointly chaired the thematic section on teaching, learning and student engagement at the Bologna Researchers’ Conference in November in Bucharest, Romania.
In a shocking result in the 2015 British elections, Prime Minister David Cameron won re-election and returned to Number 10 Downing Street with a slim yet outright majority in the House of Commons. An election that, due to the rise of traditionally minor nationalist parties just weeks earlier, was heralded as the end of the two-party system ended with a victory for one of the two major parties.
Unlike in so many elections, higher education policy positions were a topic of great debate this year, providing major and minor parties alike the opportunity to share their visions for the future of British higher education. The lessons of the 2015 British election not only provide a fantastic microcosm of the past five years of British politics, but also have great implications for the 2016 presidential race in the United States.
Among higher education policy issues in the United Kingdom in the past decade, perhaps no issue has gained more media attention than tuition (frequently called fees in Britain). Labour governments under Tony Blair introduced tuition and fees to the UK higher education system for the first time in 1998, and increased the £1,000 ($1,548) tuition cap to £3,000 ($4,647) in 2004. In 2009, it became clear that universities needed increased funding. John Browne, formerly the head of the energy company BP, chaired a commission that examined higher education and eventually advocated for no tuition caps and increasing the availability of student loans.
In 2010, public disapproval of the Labour government was high, and for those voters who didn’t approve of the Tories, either, the Liberal Democrats provided an alternative. Youth voters were drawn to the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and his pledge not to raise tuition, and voted for the party in droves. No party won a majority in Parliament, so the Liberal Democrats and Tories joined forces in a coalition government. As junior partners in the Conservative-led governing coalition, the Liberal Democrats tried to serve as a moderating force -- a goal that ultimately proved unsuccessful when they went back on their pledge and voted for a Tory proposal to increase the tuition cap to £9,000.
The Liberal Democrats paid dearly for not following through on their no tuition increases pledge. In a nationally televised appearance on a question and answer show, Clegg was asked by an audience member, “Your promise on student loans has destroyed your reputation -- why would we believe anything else you say?”
The tuition flip-flop had the same effect on Clegg that the “Read my lips: No new taxes” pledge had on President George H. W. Bush -- it provided ammunition for opponents of the Liberal Democrats, and cast doubt on Clegg’s trustworthiness. The raise of fees, seen as a Tory policy, also built upon the opposition narrative that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats weren’t doing enough to stave off the unpopular austerity measures the majority Conservative government wanted to enact. By election night, the Liberal Democrats’ image was so badly damaged that they were reduced to 8 seats from 57. Of those eight members of Parliament, four had broken party ranks and voted against the tuition increases.
Similarities in party platforms with regard to higher education also dramatically changed the outcome of the election, as differentiation in policies shed some spotlight on traditionally minor parties. The Labour and Conservative parties proposed very similar research funding and tech transfer policies. The Tories called for university enterprise zones that would connect university research with potential entrepreneurs and spin-off businesses in the mold of Silicon Valley or North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. Labour proposed “knowledge clusters” much the same way -- areas where universities would build ties with industry.
The two parties also stated that they were committed to maintaining research funding, but provided few specifics as to how they would do so. The Liberal Democrats were the only major party to differ in these areas, actually calling for greater investment in research funding and changes to employment law that would allow university students from abroad the ability to stay in the U.K. after graduation to contribute to the knowledge economy of the country. Yet, because of the party’s history on switching positions on tuition, many felt the differing ideas were unattainable in a coalition government at best, and dishonest at worst.
Such similarities among the major parties wouldn’t normally make a major difference in an election outcome, but traditionally minor parties used the similarities to their advantage. The Scottish National Party argued that the Labour Party had lost sight of its socialist roots and become too much like the Conservative party. Any similar policies between the two main parties, especially in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum in which both parties worked together to defeat the SNP, played directly into the SNP’s narrative.
In the one area where Labour and the Tories disagreed -- tuition caps -- Scottish voters paid no attention. Labour’s proposed cap reduction from £9,000 to £6,000 fell on deaf ears north of Hadrian’s Wall, as the SNP had already provided free tuition and fees for Scottish students at Scottish universities through legislation at the regional level. When Scottish voters tried to determine which party had the best chance of success in breaking up the perceived Labour-Tory policy monopoly, they had to choose between the Liberal Democrats with their poor track record on tuition fees or the party that brought free higher education to Scotland.
The Scots weren’t the only minor party to take advantage of higher education policy to build their own agenda. The pro-environment Green Party promised to erase all student debt and cap pay for the highest earners at large firms like universities at 10 times that of the lowest wage earner. Plaid Cymru, a Welsh nationalist party, dedicated to eventual independence for Wales, argued for a work visa program for foreign students similar to that of the Liberal Democrats to ensure the continued economic health of the Welsh aerospace and electronics industries.
On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the far-right U.K. Independence Party used differentiation in its higher education platform to draw attention to its main political goal of leaving the European Union. UKIP, virulently opposed to E.U. membership and patently anti-immigration, proposed a tuition policy for students from outside of the U.K. that could only be achieved if the United Kingdom were to leave the E.U. Students from abroad, even those from fellow E.U. countries, would have to pay higher tuition fees than domestic students, a policy that is illegal under European Union law.
Higher education policies became a way for minor parties to differentiate themselves from the “business as usual” candidates, and some were quite successful in that effort.
The lessons of the 2015 U.K. election certainly apply to next year’s U.S. presidential election. While the rise of a Texas national party or complete implosion of the Democratic Party seems highly unlikely, presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle are likely to use their positions on higher education issues in ways that fit with the personal narrative they try to present. Governor Scott Walker has already channeled the Tory government with his proposed cuts to the University of Wisconsin. He cites this austerity measure as an example of his commitment to fiscal stability and a low-taxes government. Expect Marco Rubio to tout the bipartisan work he has done with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden as an example of the ways in which he rises above traditional partisan politics -- not exactly the same as creating a third party, but not particularly different in its purpose, either.
Presidential candidates should look to the minority parties of the United Kingdom for guidance on how to energize voters. Rand Paul’s proposed elimination of the Department of Education will certainly energize his base the same way UKIP energizes theirs through discussion of tuition policies in a Britain free of the European Union. Bernie Sanders’s belief that higher education should be a right, and that higher education should be free, has more in common with the stated policy positions of the SNP in Scotland than the Democrats in the United States. Those positions, however, will invigorate many of the left-wing youth of the Democratic Party and could greatly increase turnout even if Senator Sanders isn’t on the ballot in November of 2016.
Finally, presidential candidates should also heed the lessons of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. Going back on promises related to higher education could result in dramatic losses in the next election. While many voters won’t consider the state of their local university on election day, a high profile flip-flop on higher education could indicate a level of dishonesty to which no re-election-seeking politician would ever want to ascribe.
Christopher R. Marsicano is a Ph.D. student in leadership and policy studies with a focus in higher education policy at Vanderbilt University.
The Japanese government gives $5 million each to Columbia, Georgetown and MIT for endowed professorships in contemporary Japanese politics. Gifts come as some worry about political science shifting away from area studies.