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.