It Takes More than Good intentions

Article published on Sept. 24, 2003
community published
Article published on Sept. 24, 2003

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

From Pisa to Bologna: the controversial Pisa survey revealed a German education system in crisis. Has the Bologna Process sent the German schools back to the books?

Since 19th June 1999 one thing is definite: out of 33 separate systems of higher education, one big European HE zone will be created. Studying abroad within Europe shall become easier, as shall mid-course exchanges. There will be ‘credits’ and ‘modules’, and students and teaching staff to circulate around this unified zone as easily as goods. The completion of an exchange will be accompanied by a universally recognised qualification. And that will be that.

The whole process is named after the place where it was masterminded: Bologna. And because it all sounds so good, everyone is in some way in favour of it – employers, student bodies, universities and, not least, the political community. But who is actually in favour of what, and why? On 18-19th September the second follow-up conference took place in Berlin. High time, then, to examine the plan more closely, taking a look at the situation in conference host and German education minister Edelgard Bulmahn’s home country.

It is clear from the German point of view that the country’s college system was in need of reform. In the 1970s, the reforms of the liberal-socialist coalition had opened the universities and colleges up to wide sections of the population. So-called “Gruppenuniversität” (stakeholder colleges) were created in which students and staff were supposed to work together to define their common learning and teaching environment. However, such progressive educational policies were bound sooner or later to come up against a negative reaction. Following a judgement of the Federal Constitutional Court, the “Gruppenuniversität” were dissolved. Gradually the flow of money into these ‘mass universities’ was simply cut off, and what remained after the education reforms were the students and a palpably under-funded HE system. In addition, the value of a college qualification as a guarantee of being able to find work was declining. While in other countries reforms were underway in the shape of a change in learning and teaching methods, a noticeable gap was developing between the demands society placed upon colleges and the reality of university life. The obvious deficits that the colleges were able to perpetuate and cultivate over the years could no longer be sustained under these circumstances. Certainly, subsequent reforms were not too concerned with widening access.

Old wine in new bottles?

A pan-European discussion therefore raised expectations. For a start, there were the Scandinavian college systems to look to for inspiration. A new debate on methods and content seemed within reach. But it didn’t turn out that way: the reforms became a case of ‘old wine in new bottles.’ The one-size-fits-all degree system became two-tier; the distinctions of Bachelor (BA) and Masters (MA) are currently being introduced in Germany. In many places, existing courses have simply been divided in two, without any consideration being given to changes in content. This chopping-up of courses has enabled the universities to get rid of a few students at the point of changeover from BA to MA. There are also in several cases new entry requirements for the new MA courses; this means two selection procedures instead of what was until now just one, and tuition fees for courses not directly following one another. In the light of this evidence, the insistence that the introduction of two-tier courses serves any kind of noble aim rings hollow. Lars Schewe from the FZS (the Free Association of Student Bodies - German equivalent of the NUS) is not convinced: “Clearly everything seems to be about just contemptuously dismantling the whole education system.”

A new quality control system, called ‘accreditation,’ has also been implemented for these courses. Only, unfortunately, it was not approved at the European level, but developed first as an independent practice that differs in small yet crucial ways from those of other European systems. The guiding principle is ‘peer review’ – in other words assessment of colleges by each other. Or more cynically put, monitoring by circumvention of independent bodies. Established standards don’t really feature in this assessment, since the universities involved in this flexible system have only to speak for themselves. Incidentally, students must not necessarily feature either. Nevertheless, this system still offers considerably more opportunity for student participation and assessment than the old bureaucratic procedures.

The Price is Right?

Examples should show how much the Bologna Process and its effects depend upon how it is applied locally. In Germany the Bologna Process is tied up with other reform proposals that will give the HE landscape features in keeping with a market economy. In future students will compete for university places while the universities compete for students. For modernisers, the pressure for reform created by the Bologna Process comes just at the right time. The effects of these reforms can already be predicted; colleges and students will be integrated into the market. To be able to survive in this market, they will have to stay in line with market requirements. There will be even less room than before for criticism, in fact anything that goes beyond the existing order.

In this respect it is striking how lopsidedly the plan is being put into practice. In Germany, for example, the social dimension has not been sufficiently discussed. Although in all countries marketing of colleges exists in order to attract ‘Young Potentials,’ the regulations regarding work- and residence permits have hardly altered, and the accommodation situation for international students in Germany is bad. On top of this, there is a lack of guidance and support, which neither the international offices nor the student administrations can afford. “If we want the process of integrating into a common European HE zone by 2010 to be a success, we must bring into the consideration the social and cultural dimension,” advocates Dieter Schäferbarthold from the Deutsches Studentenwerk (National Student Administration). The Bologna and Prague declarations have still provided no answers.

Less market, more fairness

With so many questions still open, it seems astounding that the Bologna Process is getting so much support, though this can be justified in view of its inherent potential: It is not that any Europeanisation is in itself somehow advantageous, but that this could break down structures and create links which may lead to real improvements. These improvements can, however, only be achieved alongside a concrete analysis of local reforms. If we want to see less ‘market’ and more fairness and increased student participation, we need to demand Europe-wide promotion of education, a lack of fees and the type of education which is neither cut off from its application in the real world, nor content to examine and describe this world uncritically.