Bologna, a multi-speed process

Article published on May 16, 2005
Article published on May 16, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

40 countries with very different educational systems are involved in the Bologna process, which aims to harmonise European higher education by 2010. But it seems each country is progressing at its own pace.

Five years away from the scheduled end date of the process, the implementation of extensive university reform has turned out to be an extremely complex and, of course, controversial subject. The establishment of the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), the new Europe-wide structure for graduate and postgraduate studies (three years plus two) and the promotion of student mobility are some of the changes which aim to encourage easier comparison between degrees and achieve a “European Higher Education Space”. For the time being, however, the development rate of this mega-reform varies considerably between the countries involved.

Fear of the new

Although it involves long-term changes, the Bologna process has not involved a drastic rethink of the education systems in all the countries involved. For instance, in England and Ireland, no big changes are forecast, given that their system is considered to be the foundation for the reform. In Cyprus, Denmark and Iceland, a university system similar to the one proposed by Bologna had already been applied before they signed the agreement. And among the countries which have adopted the process, some of them, including Norway, Lithuania and Luxembourg have already accomplished the reform.

In Spain, the process has been somewhat delayed. Nevertheless, in some universities, like the University Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB), some pilot courses have already been introduced. For Miriam Rodríguez, a student on one of these courses, the only thing that has changed is that with the new credit structure “coursework is taken into account more and carries a lot more weight in the final results”. Even so, “it was not until January that the decrees governing degrees and postgraduate courses were decided upon and this means that we are falling behind”, confides Victor Llagostera, the supervisor of the Bologna process at the UAB. However, he adds “In September, the directives for each degree will be finalised, which leads us to think we’re getting back on the right track.”

Success and protests

Among the countries which have had to introduce major changes to their modus operandi, France and Germany have made the most progress. In France, the Bologna structure, christened the LMD (Licence-Master-Doctorate), has already been introduced in 75% of universities and will reach virtually the all of them by next year. However, it is also one of the countries where the changes have received the most criticism. The French national students’ Union (UNEF) has just published a report on the reform in France, in which it highlights 23 negative points. The problem “is not the harmonisation of higher education in Europe, but that [the Bologna process] is used to put an end to national education frameworks and involves the loss of students’ social rights”, explains Jean Baptiste Prévost, supervisor of the UNEF’s international division and a member of the Executive Committee of the National Unions of Students in Europe, (ESIB).

In Germany, the reform is at a very advanced stage and the former diplomas, Magister and Staatexamen, are disappearing in favour of the new Bachelor and Masters degrees, which can be found in most universities. In fact, at the end of this academic year, one quarter of students will graduate with a new Bologna-style degree. Two thirds of the new Bachelor and Masters degrees will also use the ECTS system. However, the replacement of the former system has also led to certain reservations: “The problem is that when you complete your degree course, if you are not admitted to pursue a Masters degree, your university education will only have consisted of three years, and this causes a certain fear”, explains Henriette Rytz, a Masters student in Berlin.

Falling behind

Italy was one of the first countries to initiate the reforms, but its introduction was somewhat hasty. The traditional university degree, the Laurea, usually took a minimum of four years to complete. Splitting these degrees into three-year (Laurea Breve) and five-year programmes (Laurea Specialistica) led to some confusion, increased by the parallel introduction of the credit system which was totally different from the previous one. Alice Valle, a student from the University of Turin, complains about the lack of information: “I entered the university to find a new system had been introduced and was given no information at all. Whatever the reform or how it operated, we discovered from day-to-day”. Eleonora Palermo, also a student, complains about the restructuring of the university courses: “In Information and Communication Sciences there used to be 25 exams in five years. Now, there are almost 30 in the first three years and a dozen in the Masters degree and, on top of this, holders of traditional degrees continue to be preferred in working world!”

Other countries are developing little by little. Lucia Plavakova, a Slovakian journalist, talks about the introduction of the ECTS in her country: “It’s getting better every year and you have to get used to it, but its introduction did wreak havoc two years ago”. On the other hand, there are other countries where nothing has yet been done, such as Portugal and Poland. Ironically, the United Kingdom has introduced a new degree which seems to contradict what has been established in Bologna. Whilst 40 countries attempt to introduce a system based on the Anglo-Saxon ‘three plus two’ model, the UK has introduced its first two-year (Foundation) degree, which has led to criticism from different countries on the continent. Even though it is a minor element in the British system, “this new university course may result in a significant problem for the harmonisation process”, claims Dr. Gerard McCann, of Queen’s University, Belfast.

Further mobility?

The main advantage of this harmonisation of higher education at the European level is to promote the recognition of studies and mobility, both of students and teachers. But to achieve this, there is still a long way to go. Although the latest figures indicate that the number of Erasmus students, a prestigious exchange programme, increased by 9.4% in the year 2003-2004, not everything is running smoothly. The time lapse between countries in their full introduction of the ECTS does not make the recognition of studies between universities any easier.

Also, economic and social difficulties are major obstacles to be overcome for the process to develop, according to students. Therefore, the ESIB will ask the education ministers, who are gathering in Bergen to discuss Bologna, for a compromise to create “a process in which the social environment and students’ social rights become a priority”, explains Prévost. However, one of the most controversial aspects is not so much the reform involved in carrying out the Bologna process but the fact that some countries use it as an excuse to introduce parallel national reforms, which multiply confusion and often criticism as well. Thus, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Slovakia are all experiencing intense demonstrations against the tax increases that their respective governments are attempting to impose under the pretext that they are needed to remodel their higher education systems along the lines of the Bologna process.