As the Bologna Process shakes up higher education in Europe, observers here are trying to gauge what it means for Canada’s higher education system. The process may complicate student mobility between Canada and Europe and may also affect Canadian universities’ efforts to recruit international students, but no one can say for sure.
The Bologna Process is the effort by European countries to harmonize their higher education systems through the creation of a European Higher Education Area by 2010. It is an ambitious reform that is being followed closely by non-European countries.
The initial declaration was signed at the University of Bologna in 1999 by ministers of education from 29 European countries, a number that has now grown to 46. But the origins of Bologna date back further, to the creation of the Erasmus Program in 1987.
The Erasmus Program offers subsidies to European students so that they can study for a term or two at a university within another European country. Erasmus has had great success, but also has exposed how mutually unintelligible one country’s university system is to another’s, making it difficult for students to move around. For example, some countries had five-year undergraduate degree programs, while other countries required three or four years for a degree; some countries had master’s degrees, others none at all. The methods for counting credits and assessing outcomes also were all over the map.
At its core, therefore, Bologna seeks to improve the mobility of university students and professors in Europe. It also aims to make European higher education more attractive and to build more transparent and coherent structures for things such as credit transfer, quality assurance and outcome measures.
Those involved in the Bologna Process point out that it is essentially voluntary and not based on intergovernmental treaty. Each country is free to endorse or reject the Bologna principles, although there is great pressure for countries to join in or risk being left behind.
Bologna has been “an incremental process,” said Lee Harvey, director of the Centre for Research and Evaluation at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K. and an expert on higher education policy. It started with the specific aim to ensure transparency and to enable mobility, he noted, but has become “more all-embracing” through the involvement of the European Commission, the Council of Europe, UNESCO and others.
Fiona Hunter, former head of the European Association for International Education, said Bologna has created “a sense of urgency” in many countries outside Europe. “With changes happening so quickly, everyone feels this need to stay informed about Bologna, the changes in Europe and their impact on other systems.”
Ms. Hunter said that with the rise in student mobility around the world, this type of global re-evaluation was inevitable. “This is the impact of globalization on higher education.”
Australia has frequently been cited as being at the forefront of non-European nations in its response to Bologna. It and several Asian partners launched the Brisbane Initiative in 2006, which some describe as the beginnings of a Bologna-type process to integrate Asian higher education. Other regions, including Mexico and Latin America, have been working on joint projects with Europe.
The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is keeping a “close watching brief” on Bologna developments and on how other non-European countries are responding, said Robert White, senior policy analyst for international relations at AUCC.
The association organized a symposium for its members in late January with European representatives to address challenges and opportunities resulting from Bologna (see sidebar). This follows an analysis of the implications of Bologna prepared by AUCC’s international relations committee and a statement of the association’s position relative to Bologna released in June 2008.
There are three main areas where Bologna will likely affect Canada, said Mr. White. First, Bologna sets three years as the standard length of an undergraduate degree (plus two years for a master’s and three years for a PhD), so the immediate issue is whether Canadian graduate admissions offices will accept these degrees as sufficient qualification for graduate programs here.
Another area where Bologna may have an impact is on international student recruitment. The Bologna Process is “a very sophisticated promotion campaign for European higher education,” said Mr. White. “So it could ultimately have an adverse effect on our ability to attract and recruit international students” as they opt for European destinations.
The third area of concern relates to student mobility, although the impact there is less clear. Existing student-exchange programs may be affected if the host country in Europe is altering its degrees. But this could also open up opportunities for Canadian institutions to conclude new exchange programs and joint degree initiatives with a wider range of European partners.
Some organizations, such as the Canada Council on Learning, believe Bologna offers an opportunity for Canada to reform its higher education sector. Judith Maxwell, former head of the Economic Council of Canada and the Canadian Policy Research Networks, wrote last May that “the best bet” for universities and colleges “is to invent their own version of the Bologna process in order to weave together a pan-Canadian system.”
At around the same time, a report by Clifford Adelman, senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in the U.S., made waves by declaring that American institutions must get on the Bologna bandwagon or risk getting left behind. The core features of Bologna “have sufficient momentum to become the dominant global education model” within two decades, he said.
Craig Klafter, associate vice-president, international, at the University of British Columbia and a Bologna expert, is skeptical of such talk. People shouldn’t be so quick to “jump onto bandwagons that may not be moving in the direction they think,” he said. There are positive elements to Bologna, but there are also aspects he considers worrisome.
Among the positive is the European Credit Transfer System, a uniform system that defines credits based on student workload both inside and outside the classroom, said Dr. Klafter. This is different from the North American method of defining credits based on student contact hours with faculty members.
Canadian universities may wish to consider listing their courses using both credit systems, Dr. Klafter suggested. University of Victoria was the first in Canada to do this, for its summer programs, in the hope of attracting European students. UBC, as well, is exploring the possibility of listing both credit systems in its transcripts and course calendar.
Dr. Klafter also likes an innovation in Bologna called the diploma supplement, a document that explains in detail the course work a student has completed. He thinks this type of document would be helpful to employers and could spark a rethink in North America of the type of information contained in student transcripts.
On the minus side, he is firmly against the plan for a centralized European accreditation registry, which he said will discourage individuality and innovation among higher education institutions.
One of the “defining features” of the Canadian system is its decentralized nature, he said. “The fact is that because [higher education] is a provincial matter in Canada, it has led to much greater innovation.”
Finally, although the Bologna Process has attracted so much attention, “it is far from a done deal,” said Dr. Klafter. “There is considerable opposition, not only on the part of universities throughout the community, but increasingly within the European Parliament.”
As well, there is no uniform pace for countries to implement the Bologna process. Most of the former Eastern Bloc countries have enthusiastically embraced reforms, while some countries with older systems – such as Italy, Spain and Germany – are taking longer to adapt.
There remain “all sorts of anomalies” within the Bologna process, acknowledged Dr. Harvey of Sheffield Hallam University. But, when one considers the number of countries involved and the range of systems it started with, “the fact that there is any kind of harmonization is remarkable.”
With a report from Philip Fine, Canadian correspondent of University World News.
The take-away message
A symposium organized by the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada in late January closed with a roundtable discussion of key “take-away” messages about the Bologna Accord. They include:
We can’t ignore it
“It is a train that’s left the station,” said Morton Mendelson, deputy provost, student life and learning, at McGill University. “If we are going to participate globally [in higher education], I think we have to understand it and we have to make it work for us.”
It affects teaching
Much has been made about changes to the system, but Bologna also represents a paradigm shift away from traditional teaching to a focus on learning outcomes, noted Volker Gehmlich, a professor of economics at the University of Applied Sciences in Osnabrueck, Germany. This is a fundamental change in how institutions think about their students.
It’s an opportunity
Chris Greenshields, director of international education for the federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, said he was struck by the level of interest shown by European institutions to engage with their Canadian colleagues and to form partnerships. “This is a real opportunity for Canada and we should take it,” he said.
It’s also a challenge
One of the key aspects of Bologna is to make European higher education more attractive to students at an international level. This puts pressure on Canada’s marketing efforts for higher education. “People are becoming more and more inquisitive about institutions, about their reputation and what they’re offering. And I think that’s something we’ll need to address,” said Darcy Rollins, director of international education for the Manitoba government. “We need to work up our brand.”
The University of Alberta also has organized a conference on Bologna entitled “Canadian Perspectives on the Bologna Process,” to be held at the university March 19-20.