The European Students’ Union, or ESU, has warned that the Bologna Process, which seeks to harmonise and reform higher education across the continent, is in danger of becoming obsolete because of uneven implementation and poor follow-up of commitments by many European countries, writes Nic Mitchell.
The ESU report Bologna with Student Eyes: Time to meet the expectations from 1999, is based on responses from national union of students’ organisations in 38 countries.
Many of the concerns raised by the ESU were echoed at the recent ministerial conference in Yerevan, Armenia, where the latest Bologna Process Implementation Report accepted that progress across the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA, was patchy, as University World News reported on 21 May, 2015.
The new ESU report describes itself as “a reality-check on what has been agreed upon by national governments within the Bologna Process and what the actual situation is for students”.
Key author Elisabeth Gehrke, whose period as chair of the ESU ended this month, said: “It is not reasonable that the Bologna Process has been in place since 1999, yet still basic recognition of degrees and qualifications is not yet a reality.
“There is no doubt that something must be done or in 2020 the Bologna Process will be obsolete at best.”
The main obstacle for reaching the goals of the EHEA highlighted by the national student unions is “the lack of a minimum level of implementation of the Bologna reforms”.
The lack of automatic recognition of degrees and qualifications in different countries is holding back the whole process, says the ESU report; which questions whether there is sufficient political will to drive through the reforms needed to make a success of the European Higher Education Area.
Social dimension is crucial
The social dimension is one of the crucial aspects of the Bologna Process to ensure that the student body mirrors the diversity of the population, says the ESU.
Yet, according to student unions, higher education institutions only consider social dimension to be a high priority in eight countries: Hungary, Malta, Portugal, Croatia, Bulgaria, Estonia, the United Kingdom and Slovenia.
That low figure is only outdone by the unions’ opinion of how important the social dimension is for their governments, with only Malta, Portugal, Poland, Croatia, Bulgaria, Serbia and the UK reporting positively.
Discrimination is worrying
Worryingly, unions from 10 countries reported that there are no clear procedures in place at institutions to prevent discrimination.
While students with physical disabilities are generally protected, unions reported that only seven countries provide protection for mature students over 25; 10 reported protective measures for students from immigrant backgrounds and 12 for students with children or other dependents.
As for underrepresented groups of students, individual countries’ student unions identified specific examples of underrepresentation.
“In Lithuania, students who grew up in state foster homes, also commonly known as state orphans, are highly underrepresented. In Ireland the same applies for members of the Irish Traveller community. The status of LGBTQ students could not be reported in Macedonia, since the government does not officially recognise them,” said the ESU report.
As for national plans for widening access to quality higher education – a key along Bologna goal adopted by the last ministerial conference in Bucharest in 2012 – only two countries, the UK and Bulgaria, were reported to have successfully implemented access plans.
On quality assurance, which the ESU sees as having multiple purposes including enhancing learning and teaching, building trust among stakeholders and increasing harmonisation and comparability in the EHEA, the report says the UK may be a good example of a system of institutional assurance designed to improve the quality of higher education institutions.
On student participation in quality assurance, almost every country has student representatives on quality reviews except for Belarus.
However, only three countries, Lithuania, the UK and Armenia, allow students to be the chair or secretary of external review panels.
Structural reforms are key
Structural reforms are one of the key tools to achieve the Bologna goals by enabling comparability, compatibility and trust between countries in order to ensure that students can move freely within Europe by facilitating the recognition of qualifications.
The three core components of the structural reforms in the Bologna Process are qualifications frameworks, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, or ECTS, and the three-cycle degree system. The ESU says all three must be considered together.
The report says the implementation of a functioning national qualification framework remains a major challenge for the vast majority of countries. ECTS has been implemented in many countries, but often only superficially without using workload on learning outcomes.
As for the three-cycle system, there is still large variation in understanding what constitutes a bachelor’s, masters or doctoral degree.
Lack of consistency
A major challenge is the lack of consistency. For example some masters degrees are 60 credits, some 90 and some hundred and some 120. “This creates a major challenge for mobility and recognition of foreign qualifications”, says the report.
The ESU is also worried that some governments may be using the Bologna name to push forward unpopular national reforms and calls for the establishment of a control mechanism to verify that governments and institutions are not misusing the Bologna name to justify policies that are unrelated to it.
European Commission response
Responding to the ESU report, Nathalie Vandystadt, European Commission spokesperson for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, said: “The success of Bologna cooperation is remarkable but of course the process has faced many challenges.
“More work remains to complete the common European Higher Education Area, but now is not the time to look back, but to put fresh and bold emphasis on implementing the needed reforms. All governments that are part of the process have agreed to do this.
“Despite significant progress, implementation of Bologna reforms, including the automatic recognition of degrees, remains uneven. In some countries, recognition is close to automatic while in others, it continues to be an obstacle to mobility.”
+ This is an abridged version of a feature story that first appeared in University World News, on 10 July 2015, headlined ‘European student union’s warning over Bologna dream’.