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"From Bologna to London" - on the Road to the European Higher Education Area

bridges vol. 9, April 2006 / Feature Article
by Barbara Weitgruber

Since 1999 the so-called "Bologna Process," aimed at establishing a European Higher Education Area by 2010, has become the driving force for reforms in higher education all across Europe, and has strongly influenced trends in higher education in 45 European countries. Halfway through the process, work on a strategy for the "external dimension" - interaction with the countries and re-gions of the world not included in the Bologna Process - has just started.

{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}Ever since European Ministers in charge of Higher Education in 29 European countries committed themselves, in the so-called "Bologna Declaration" of June 1999, to establishing a European Higher Education Area by 2010, major reforms in higher education have swept all across Europe.


The number of countries participating in this so-called "Bologna Process" has increased steadily. In 2005 the number of participating countries increased to 45, as all countries party to the European Cultural Convention of the Council of Europe are eligible to apply to join the Bologna Process.

The participating countries are (in alphabetical order):
Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, For-mer Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Holy See, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Malta, Moldova, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom.

In biennial ministerial meetings (Bologna 1999, Prague 2001, Berlin 2003, and Bergen 2005) ministers monitor the state of higher education in Europe as well as the progress achieved, and agree on future action. So far, the ministers have agreed to coordinate their higher education policies in the following areas:

  • Adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees
  • Adoption of a system essentially based on two cycles (Bachelor's/Master's)
  • Establishment of a system of credits (European Course Credit Transfer System/ ECTS)
  • Promotion of mobility
  • Promotion of European cooperation in quality assurance
  • Promotion of the European dimension in higher education
  • Lifelong learning
  • Promotion of the attractiveness of the European Higher Education Area
  • Social dimension of higher education
  • Joint degrees
  • Overarching framework for qualifications
  • Doctoral programs as the synergy between the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area.

Through all these years, the Bologna Process has remained a process of voluntary cooperation on a political level. The cooperation has always been based on mutual trust and on the assumption that all participating countries will adapt their legislation according to the principles and following the objectives of the Bologna Process.

Between the ministerial meetings, the Bologna process is governed by the so-called European Bologna Follow-up Group, which includes in its membership all participating countries and major partners such as: the European University Association (the representative organization of both the European universities and the national rectors' conferences, with 775 members in 45 countries), ESIB, the National Unions of Students in Europe, the European Commission, the Council of Europe, EURASHE (European Association of Institutions in Higher Education), UNICE (Union des Industries de la Communauté européenne), ENQA (European Network for Quality As-surance in Higher Education), Education International and UNESCO/CEPES. The group is chaired by the respective EU Presidency, and usually meets once a semester.

The objectives defined at the ministerial meetings are realized through detailed work programs including working groups and projects on specific topics and seminars on the European level to promote these issues.

In order to monitor the process and to see if there is a coherent and consistent approach to implementing the Bologna Process across Europe, a reporting and stocktaking system has been introduced. This includes comparable national reports and a stocktaking report covering the implementation of certain objectives of the Bologna process in all countries. Country scorecards show the progress made in individual countries for each of the benchmarks agreed upon.

For detailed information on implementation of the Bologna Process, national reports prepared for the ministerial conferences in 2003 and 2005, and national legislation, please consult the following web site:


Information on implementation since the 2005 Ministerial Conference in Bergen is available on the web site for the 2007 Ministerial conference, which will meet in London:


The coordination and the convergence of national policies agreed upon by the ministers will increase Europe's attractiveness and competitiveness in the world by making the European higher education system more understandable and attractive to students and scholars from other continents.

More than halfway through the Bologna Process, the first "contours" of a European Higher Education Area are starting to become visible. These do not take the form of a "single" European higher education system, of course, but rather a group of 45 national systems developing along the lines of jointly agreed-upon principles.

What does this mean for transatlantic cooperation? On the one hand, there will be more competition for international students and scholars. With the introduction of Bachelor's and Master's degrees across Europe, an increasing number of study programs offered in English, and joint degree programs enabling students to study at several European universities to earn one jointly awarded degree, European higher education institutions will definitely become more attractive for both European and international students.

On the other hand, European higher education institutions are likely to become more attractive partners for their US counterparts as host institutions for US students during their "study abroad year."

One of the practical challenges is, of course, the mutual recognition of Bachelor's and Master's degrees, and the admission to Master's programs and doctoral studies.

With 45 countries sharing a common vision, the Bologna Process has the opportunity to make Europe a strong partner for cooperation in higher education based on mutual trust and understanding for all regions of the world. Yet, there is also the danger of Europe becoming too self-absorbed and too preoccupied with intra-European cooperation.

In order to avoid this, ministers have asked the Bologna Follow-up Group to elaborate a strategy for the "external dimension" of the Bologna Process in time for the next ministerial conference in May 2007. Some of the basic principles were already formulated at the 2005 meeting in Bergen:

"We see the European Higher Education Area as a partner of higher education systems in other regions of the world, stimulating balanced student and staff exchange and cooperation between higher education institutions. We underline the importance of intercultural understanding and respect. We look forward to enhancing the understanding of the Bologna process in other continents by sharing our experiences of reform processes with neighbouring regions. We stress the need for dialogue on issues of mutual interest. We see the need to identify partner regions and intensify the exchange of ideas and experiences with those regions." (Bergen Communiqué, 2005, http://www.dfes.gov.uk/bologna)

The upcoming NAFSA conference (May 22-27, 2006 in Montreal) will be an ideal forum for exchange. Many European colleagues from higher education institutions, from the European University Association, from agencies promoting academic exchange and mobility, and from ministries will take up this challenge. Let us hope that these discussions will lead to a better understanding of what is occurring in Europe, and will make the higher education community in North America aware that the word "Bologna" has come to mean far more to Europeans than a beautiful town in Italy.


The author, Barbara Weitgruber, is presently chair of the European Bologna Follow-up group. Over the past 11 years she has held a variety of positions in the ministry (e.g., director general for Scientific Research and International Relations, deputy director general for Higher Education) and is now advisor for strategic projects in International Cooperation. {/access}





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