The Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe - European Union Committee Contents

CHAPTER 2: the bologna process

The Bologna Process

11.  The Bologna Process is a voluntary, intergovernmental, framework between education ministers from 47 European countries.[10] It began with the Bologna Declaration in 1999[11] and included the goal of developing a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) by 2010.[12] Its main feature has been the adoption of a three-cycle system of Bachelors, Masters and Doctorates, which, while already familiar in the United Kingdom, has led to the radical reform and restructuring of some European countries' higher education systems. It has also involved the development of a system of recognition of credits for study, the promotion of mobility and greater co-operation in quality assurance standards. Its focus is encouraging greater compatibility across Europe rather than harmonising higher education systems. Over time it has agreed a number of policy aims, or 'action lines', which are set out in Box 2.


Bologna Process—10 Action Lines
Established in the Bologna Declaration of 1999:

(1)  Adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees

(2)  Adoption of a system essentially based on two cycles[13]

(3)  Establishment of a system of credits

(4)  Promotion of mobility

(5)  Promotion of European co-operation in quality assurance

(6)  Promotion of the European dimension in higher education

Added after the Prague Ministerial Conference of 2001:

(7)  Focus on lifelong learning

(8)  Greater inclusion of higher education institutions and students in the Bologna Process

(9)  Promotion of the attractiveness of the European Higher Education Area

Added after the Berlin Ministerial Conference of 2003:

(10)Doctoral studies and the synergy between the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area

Source: UK Higher Education International Unit, Universities UK

12.  Decision-making in the Bologna Process is the responsibility of the education ministers of each participating country. They meet in Ministerial Conferences, following which a Communiqu is adopted by consensus and then taken forward by the Bologna Follow-Up Group.[14] Since 1999, ministers have met five times to assess progress—Prague in 2001, Berlin in 2003, Bergen in 2005, London in 2007 and Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve in 2009. Individual universities and their representative organisations, including Universities UK, have also been active participants in this process. The Bologna Process has no centralised budget and instead each participating country and organisation meets its own costs, with the costs of the Bologna Secretariat being met by the host country for each Ministerial Conference.

13.  All our witnesses were positive about the role of the Bologna Process and its benefits, with some also specifically endorsing the merits of its voluntary and consensual nature.[15] The European University Association (EUA)[16] told us "every single one of these 47 governments and the 47 university systems has taken part on a voluntary basis. There is no coercion or legislation. It is up to countries to decide whether they want to take part in these reforms".[17] We received no evidence of any desire by any of the participating countries or organisations to reconstitute the Bologna Process on a more formal, bureaucratic or legalistic footing. The Government told us that the Bologna Process had led to significant changes to higher education systems across Europe, including the introduction of the three-cycle degree system to some countries for the first time and the agreement of common quality assurance guidelines and qualification frameworks.[18] We also heard that the impact of the Bologna Process had been felt beyond Europe, including China, where the chairman of million+, Professor Ebdon, told us he is regularly asked to speak about the Bologna Process.[19]

14.  We endorse the voluntary and consensual approach adopted by the Bologna Process and consider that it has resulted in tangible benefits for Europe.

The EU dimension

15.  The European Commission is a full member of the Bologna Process, with the relevant Commissioner[20] attending each Ministerial Conference alongside the ministers from each participating country. Other bodies, including the European Students' Union (ESU) and the EUA, are consultative members.[21] The European Commission is also a consultative member of the Bologna Follow-up Group and provides funding for 'Bologna Experts' across Europe,[22] research and development projects and student and staff mobility programmes such as Erasmus. While we received no evidence to suggest that the Commission would like a stronger role in European higher education or the Bologna Process, many of our witnesses raised concerns about the boundaries becoming blurred between the EU and the EHEA.[23]

16.  The Commission, and the EU more generally, plays a valuable role in the Bologna Process and adds value to higher education in Europe. However, we believe that it is important to retain clear demarcations between their respective remits and objectives in order to avoid duplication and ensure continuing complementarity.

The United Kingdom dimension

17.  The United Kingdom already enjoys a unique position within the EHEA as its existing three-cycle degree structure is similar to the ideal espoused by the Bologna Process. Its universities also enjoy a high degree of autonomy, as well as a strong global reputation, which is maintained by a mature quality assurance system.[24] In European terms, British universities also dominate the European presence in league tables such as those compiled by the Shanghai Jaio Tong University and Times Higher Education World University Rankings. However, despite some British universities having a very European orientation, including the University of Kent which "positions itself to be the UK's European University" with campuses in Brussels and Paris,[25] one of our witnesses referred to the "suspicious relationship of the British higher education sector to Europeanisation, outside the financing of research".[26] The UK Higher Education International Unit felt that fundamental aspects of the Bologna Process, such as the three-cycle system, had not generated much resonance in the UK due to its familiarity,[27] while the National Union of Students (NUS) drew our attention to the general lack of awareness about the Bologna Process among students and institutions.[28]

18.  The familiarity of the Bologna Process in the United Kingdom—such as the three-cycle degree structure—should not make universities complacent about its potential benefits, in terms of encouraging mobility and allowing greater collaboration with Continental universities, and they should endeavour to keep apace with developments in the rest of the European Higher Education Area. It is in the interests of the Government, universities, staff, students, employers and wider civil society for the United Kingdom to continue to be actively engaged in the Bologna Process.

19.  While the Russell Group, 1994 Group, million+ and University Alliance[29] were all positive about the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) and Diploma Supplement, and the use of these instruments among their members,[30] other witnesses pointed to problems with the implementation of the ECTS in practice. The University of Kent told us "the fact that higher education is a national competence and the recognition of qualifications is laid down in national legislation has proved to be a barrier"[31] while the University Alliance also stated that bachelor degrees are not fully accepted as exit qualifications by academics and employers in a number of countries as students were expected to progress to the Masters stage.[32] Further information about the ECTS and the Diploma Supplement is provided in Box 3.


European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) and the Diploma Supplement

The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) was introduced by the Commission in the late 1980s in order to allow Erasmus students to count their credits when they studied abroad. One year of study equates to 60 ECTS credits. The 2003 Berlin Ministerial Conference called for the ECTS to be used as an academic transfer and accumulation system across the EHEA. While being voluntary it has nevertheless become firmly part of the EHEA landscape, with many countries incorporating it in their national legal systems. That does not prevent some countries using their own credit systems, provided that they are in some way compatible with the principles of the credit transfer system.[33]

The Diploma Supplement was developed by the Council of Europe, UNESCO and the Commission in order to provide students with a transcript of their academic record, which adhered to uniform criteria. The document should contain a description of the qualification that a student has received in a standard format, which is easy to understand and compare, and which also describes the content of the qualification and the structure of the higher education system within which it was issued. The 2003 Ministerial Conference also agreed that these should be made available, automatically and free of charge, to all students graduating from 2005.

20.  Many of our witnesses also raised specific concerns about the compatibility of Masters degrees in the United Kingdom with Bologna and the ECTS.[34] Masters degrees in many other Bologna countries typically last up to two years and therefore attract 120 ECTS credits. The Russell Group told us that "At the moment, for Masters, Bologna measures workload and numbers of hours. That is antithetical to the UK Masters, which is based on the quality of the outcome and the experience".[35] In the United Kingdom, most Masters degrees last for 12 months and involve a more intensive 45 weeks of study as opposed to the standard academic year of 30 weeks. As a result they attract 90 ECTS credits, which the Commission has designated as the minimum amount needed for a recognisable Master's qualification within the Bologna framework. Despite this, we were told that a number of universities in the United Kingdom had faced problems in securing recognition of the Masters degrees of their graduates from other European countries in those students' home countries.[36] As a result, the Russell Group stated that the "UK's representatives will need to pay close attention to the perception of UK's one year second cycle (Masters) qualifications in Europe, and make clear that their value is demonstrated by learning outcomes and quality alongside hours and workload".[37] Dr Anne Corbett, from the London School of Economics, also remarked that "It should be noted that these are not unique to the UK. It is surprising that the UK does not seem to have made any Bologna-wide alliance on this issue".[38]

21.  We call on the Government to be more proactive in ensuring that the one-year Masters degree, which is already recognised in theory, is accommodated within the European Higher Education Area in practice.

22.  The Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP, admitted that engagement among universities with the Bologna Process had thus far been "mixed". He also considered that the operation of ECTS was "not yet fully fit for purpose",[39] although the Government are supportive of the underlying principle and appreciates how widespread the scheme has become across the EHEA.[40] We understand that the Government would prefer the ECTS to take more account of the outcomes rather than hours studied. The EUA told us that while Scotland participated fully with the ECTS and the Diploma Supplement, the relevant authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland did not.[41] The Commission conducted a review of the ECTS in 2007 and have announced their intention to strengthen it further in the Communication.[42]

23.  We developed the impression that the Bologna Process, while appreciated as a concept by our witnesses, had yet to reach full acceptance across the higher education sector in the United Kingdom. This was encapsulated by the Government's June 2011 White Paper on higher education, which made no reference to the European context.[43]

24.  We regret the fact that the Government's June 2011 White Paper on higher education made no reference at all to the European context, despite the clear importance of initiatives such as the Bologna Process to universities in the United Kingdom. We urge the Government and universities more actively to promote and exploit the actual and potential benefits of the Bologna Process to their students and staff, including the utility of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System and the Diploma Supplement. Both of these instruments have obvious benefits but we regret that while they have been fully adopted in Scotland, this is not yet the case in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, despite their adoption by the majority of the 47 Bologna countries.

10   Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium (French and Flemish), Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Georgia, Greece, Holy See, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, United Kingdom and Ukraine. Back

11   The Bologna Declaration was adopted on 19 June 1999 by 29 countries, which is available here: Baroness Blackstone was the UK signatory. This followed on from the Sorbonne Declaration on the harmonisation of the architecture of the European higher education system by the four Ministers in charge for France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom on 25 May 1998, which is available here:  Back

12   It was officially launched on 12 March 2010 with the adoption of the Budapest-Vienna Declaration by 47 countries; which is available here:  Back

13   The third cycle-Doctoral degrees-was formally introduced to the Bologna Process following the 2003 Berlin Ministerial Conference. Back

14   The Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG) meets every six months and is jointly chaired by the EU country holding the Presidency of the EU and a non-EU country. The BFUG is supported by a Bologna Secretariat. Back

15   QAA and Russell Group Back

16   The EUA represents and supports more than 850 universities in 46 countries, facilitating cooperation and the exchange of information on higher education and research policies. Members of the EUA include individual universities, national associations and other organisations active in higher education and research, such as Universities UK. Back

17   Q 109 Back

18   BIS Back

19   Q93. Back

20   Mrs Androulla Vassiliou, the Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism, Sport, Media and Youth, is due to attend the Bucharest Ministerial Conference on 26 and 27 April 2012. Back

21   The other consultative members are the Council of Europe, UNESCO and its European Centre for Higher Education (CEPES), the European University Institute, the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, Education International Pan-European Structure and BUSINESS EUROPE. Back

22   In the UK, 13 Bologna Experts were appointed by the British Council, with the Commission's approval. They are generally senior academics and administrators but two student Bologna Experts, including Liam Burns (the current President of the National Union of Students), have also been nominated. Their job it is to help inform universities about the Bologna Process reforms, including the ECTS and Diploma Supplements. Back

23   BIS, Scottish Government, QAA, Russell Group, University Alliance and Q 23 Back

24   In the United Kingdom, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is responsible for safeguarding standards and improving the quality of higher education. Back

25   University of Kent Back

26   Dr Anne Corbett Back

27   Q 26 Back

28   NUS Back

29   million+ is a university think-tank which provides evidence and analysis on policy and funding regimes that impact on universities, students and the services that universities provide for the business, health, education and not-for-profit sectors. The 1994 Group is an association of 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities, which aim to apply their members' experiences to meeting the needs of students and staff, employers and industry, research councils and government agencies. The Russell Group is an association of 20 research-intensive universities, which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector. The University Alliance is a group of 23 business-engaged universities, which are committed to delivering world-class research and a high quality student experience. Back

30   Q 93 Back

31   University of Kent Back

32   University Alliance, supplementary evidence Back

33   In Scotland the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) is used while England, Wales and Northern Ireland use the Credit Accumulation Transfer System (CATS). The SCQF and CATS both use the same number of points and two SCQF/CATS points are equivalent to one ECTS point. Back

34   University Alliance, Dr Anne Corbett, Russell Group, Q 104 and Q 119 Back

35   Q 94 Back

36   University of Kent (regarding postgraduate degrees issued by their Brussels campus) and University Alliance, supplementary evidence Back

37   Russell Group Back

38   Dr Anne Corbett Back

39   Q 72 and Q 91 Back

40   BIS Back

41   Q 111. A report from the Bologna Follow-up Group-Bologna Process Stocktaking Report 2009-confirms this disparity. Back

42   COM (2011) 567, p. 12 Back

43   BIS, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System, Cm 8122. The Scottish Government document-Putting Learners at the Centre-places more emphasis on the European dimension, particularly the funding opportunities for Scottish universities. Back

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