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Bologna Reloaded:

A Review of the First Decade of Working on the European Higher Education Area, and of the Bologna Ministerial Anniversary Conference in Budapest and Vienna, March 11–12, 2010
bridges vol. 25, April 2010 / Letter from Brussels

By Sabine Neyer

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Sabine Neyer

On June 19, 1999, 29 European Ministers in charge of Higher Education signed a declaration in the Italian city of Bologna to reform the structures of their higher education systems. This declaration later became famous as the Bologna Declaration and marked a milestone in European cooperation in the field of Higher Education. This March, a Bologna anniversary conference took place in Vienna and in Budapest, at which the first independent assessment of the Bologna Process was presented to the public.

A short overview about the Bologna Process

The Bologna Process itself is on a voluntary basis and, besides the 47 countries participating today, involves the European Commission, Council of Europe, UNESCO, European University Association (EUA), the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education (EURASHE), the European Student´s Union (ESU), the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), Education International Pan-European structure (EI), and Business Europe. Each signatory country commits itself to reforming its own higher education system in order to create overall convergence at the European level.

All main stakeholders in the field of Higher Education, from students to businesses, are involved in the Bologna Process, making it open and transparent. The process is steered by biennial Bologna ministerial conferences, which take stock of the progress since 1999 and also set the priorities for the following years in the form of a so-called working plan. The current working plan was decided in November 2009 and looks as far ahead as 2012.


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} The committee preparing for the ministerial meetings is called the Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG). BFUG is composed of the participating countries, the European Commission, the above-mentioned stakeholder institutions, and some high-ranking officials. Input for the BFUG meetings is provided by various working groups, which have been established as subgroups that report back to their respective ministers. The working groups have the following key areas of activity:

·    Social dimension: Compiles good practices of social dimension implementation in Higher Education at national and regional levels and successful stories of improving employability due to good practices of Higher Education Institutions.

·    Qualifications Frameworks: Forms liaisons with other action lines, especially recognition.

·    International openness: Develops the Bologna web site for a global audience, pool of experts across the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) countries, and information on policy dialogue events relevant to the Bologna Process.

·    Mobility: Develops a benchmark that "in 2020, at least 20% of those graduating in the European Higher Education Area should have had a study or training period abroad"; improves and enhances data collection with regard to information on the reasons for mobility; collects specific examples of different kinds of mobility barriers for students and staff; identifies reasons for imbalanced mobility; and collects examples of good practices for encouraging balanced mobility.

·    Recognition: Makes recommendations on the respective roles and responsibilities of public authorities; recommends what should be included in reviewing their recognition legislation; clarifies the differences in recognition criteria and procedures among countries of the EHEA; makes recommendations with a view to ensuring more equal treatment of applications for recognition throughout the EHEA; explores possible ways to include an assessment of the quality of internal recognition.

·    Reporting on the implementation of the Bologna Process: Specifies the indicators for measuring progress; identifies the data required and information collection from the Bologna countries for the purpose of qualitative analysis; develops a precise definition of the 20% mobility benchmark.

·    Transparency mechanisms: Monitors and analyzes transparency tools and mechanisms and the indicators used.

The Ministerial Conference in Budapest and Vienna and the independent assessment report

2010_conference_logo_new_small.jpeg After 10 years of this process it was time to analyze the progress, but also to look critically at the developments of the past years. In order to have a critical view of the process, an independent report was commissioned. Several aspects have been highlighted, especially the assessment of the degree and curriculum reform, the cooperation in the field of quality assurance, the assessment of the Qualifications Framework, the assessment of recognition issues, as well as several other aspects. It would take too long to present the content and progress in every area, but we can take a brief look at the following three topics:  

1. Quality Assurance
The change to the ECTS Systems has required well-functioning cooperation in the field of quality assurance. As early as the 1980s, the European Countries started to build up a network of quality agencies. At that time, the situation was very different throughout Europe: In some countries (Central and Eastern Europe) the accreditation instrument had been used to tackle and support the changes into a post-communist Higher Education System, whereas in others, restrictions (for example, budget restrictions) made new steering mechanisms necessary. International compatibility was only interesting to small countries that had to offer comparable Higher Education Systems with transparent quality assurance mechanisms for their students. At that time, countless quality assurance agencies had been established, but the lack of quality in these agencies was clear. The aim of such an agency is to guarantee the quality of the accreditations of the university courses, but this quality guarantee was executed in very different ways by different agencies and, even more, by different agencies in different countries. The Implementation of a European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) became operable in 2008 with the goal of helping to establish a common standard of university education and implementing the idea of excellence in the same way in all the participating countries. It can be stated today that, if an agency has been taken up in the European Register, the quality and the ideals of excellence are represented at a high level. In Austria, currently the AQA (Austrian Quality Assurance Agency - Österreichische Qualitätssicherungsagentur) is registered in the EQAR. Some aspects of quality assurance are: the international participation, the student participation, and also the external and internal quality assurance. Generally, the implementation of a quality assurance register is seen as a success, but there is further work to be done - especially in the adaptation of the European Standards of Qualification (ESG) - as stated in the independent report.   

2. Mobility
Another topic is the strengthening and consolidation of mobility, both of students and of staff, within the higher education area, which is also a very important issue for the Bologna Process. There is no doubt about the importance of mobility for academic, cultural, political, social, and also economic reasons. The aim expressed in the Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué is that "in 2020, at least 20% of those graduating in the European Higher Education Area should have had a study or training period abroad." The goal seems clear and concrete, but the devil is in the details because it is not clear, for example, how long these study periods must be. The discussion follows the lines of diploma or credit mobility. Credit mobility is the kind of mobility fostered by the European Union institutions, through organized programs (such as Erasmus or others) in which part of a university education can be passed in another European Country. But the greatest parts of mobility actions still take place in a rather disorganized way, making it difficult to capture in statistics. Concerning credit mobility, there are two statistics, the Erasmus and the Eurostudent statistics, which can provide an idea of the mobility. However, even with uncertain and incomplete data, it can be stated that mobility within the EHEA has increased from 2 percent (2007) to 4 percent. Moreover, 30 percent (2007) of the students worldwide are currently studying in the EHEA. The attractiveness of the Western countries compared to the Eastern ones is nonetheless clearly visible. The main challenges in this field, apart from the ambitious goal of 20 percent by 2020, will be to engage the countries that currently show little or no improvement in mobility, in order to improve the data on staff mobility (teachers, researchers, and administrative staff) and to enhance the portability of grants.

3. Social Dimension
The access and the flexibility of the Higher Education Area is a topic that was established at a later stage of the European Higher Education Area. Brought up especially by student representatives, the social dimension became an important part in the Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué and also in the Budapest/Vienna Declaration, which mentions "the efforts on the social dimension in order to provide equal opportunities to quality education, paying particular attention to underrepresented groups.t" This topic has not been profoundly worked on for some years. The main areas are widening the access to higher education, increasing the involvement of higher education participants, and ensuring the participation of all groups of society. Access will be one of the main topics discussed in the coming years.

The next Ministerial conference will be held in Romania, April 26-27, 2012.



The author, Sabine Neyer, has been working as attachée for science and research at the Austrian Permanent Representation to the EU since January 2007.


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