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CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin Online


Vol 56 | No 4 | April 2009

Bologna Process Poses Dangers & an Opportunity

Back Print
By David Robinson

The Bologna Process, under which European governments are attempting to harmonize their college and university systems, is beginning to attract more attention in Canada. Much of the initial reaction has been from those involved in graduate student admissions who have had to wrestle with how to consider European applicants who’ve graduated under the new common degree structures that have been developed. But increasingly, Canada’s university and college administrators are pointing to other elements of the Bologna Process to which they say the academic community needs to pay more attention or risk being left behind.

Initiated in 1999 in the Italian city that is home to Europe’s oldest university, the Bologna Process is a complex and intricate set of agreements, declarations and ongoing discussions among 46 countries with the aim of creating a European higher education area that is the most “competitive” and “attractive” in the world. It is a far-reaching process insofar as the countries involved now stretch well outside the European Union.

Bologna negotiations, a tedious and intricate affair, have led to ministerial agreements on a common pan-European degree structure, a system of credit transfer across institutions and countries and programs to encourage student and staff mobility.

The process has been largely voluntary and relatively inclusive and there is much to be lauded. But it has not been without controversy. That’s because some nations have used the Bologna Process as a guise to implement unpopular reforms.

In 2006 and 2007, the Greek government claimed a series of controversial measures, including a proposed amendment to the country’s constitution eliminating the prohibition on private higher education institutions, were necessary in order to meet the obligations of Bologna. Similarly, the French government sought to justify its recent reforms partly on the grounds of becoming Bologna compliant. In both cases, students and staff responded with nationwide strikes and protests.

Bologna has also generated enormous new bureaucratic demands on institutions. The development of a common degree cycle required most European universities to change their program structures and curriculum, and to painstakingly document these changes in literally tens of thousands of pages of mind-numbing reports and papers. However, for all their hard work most of these institutions received no additional funding, and instead were rewarded with budget freezes and even cutbacks.

It’s difficult to see then, beyond the matter of degree recognition, how all this has any direct relevance for Canada. However, many university and college administrators are fretting about what they see as the potential implications of the emerging European higher education system on their bottom line. More precisely, they’re worried about their ability to compete for those lucrative international students who have helped pad revenues in recent years.

If Bologna succeeds in making Europe a more attractive destination for students, then Canada’s universities and colleges, which have aggressively marketed themselves to full fee-paying international students, may risk losing potential “customers” and market share.

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, admitted as much in a statement released last year, warning that “(a)s the Bologna countries seek to make Europe a more attractive study destination through its degree harmonization and support for increased academic mobility, they are likely to increase their international student market share at the expense of other leading host countries, including Canada.”

This fear has even driven some of our college and university leaders to call for Canada to emulate certain elements of Bologna. The focus isn’t so much on degree recognition or with creating a pan-Canadian degree cycle, since these are pretty much non-issues here. Rather, the emphasis has been on the quality assurance and qualifications frameworks of Bologna. That’s where the real danger lies.

When the Bologna Process began, European ministers were forced to wrestle with the recognition of degrees from across a dizzying array of countries, institutions and programs. They ended up posing the problem as one of how to ensure that a piece of paper a student in Latvia is awarded actually means anything to an employer in the United Kingdom. In other words, they asked what kind of warranty is available to higher education “consumers” — in this case, students and employers.

One solution they came up with was qualifications frameworks — basically statements of learning outcomes and competencies a student has to demonstrate in order to be awarded a degree. These frameworks exist in more generic forms at the European-wide level, as well as at the national and disciplinary level. The disciplinary qualifications frameworks are developed through what is called a “tuning process” where desired student learning outcomes and competencies are identified. In other words, you attempt to define the competencies you’d expect of a philosophy, biology or engineering graduate.

The problem, in my view, is that these qualifications frameworks have focused far too much on identifying competencies that above all else try to match students to specialized labour market needs. The fact is Bologna has from the start — despite the odd aside here and there about the importance of liberal education — been unabashedly instrumentalist and vocationally-oriented. This threatens to upset the critical balance universities and colleges have traditionally maintained in preparing students not just for the world of work, but also for civic engagement and contributing to their personal development.

In fact, perhaps there’s something here that our college and university leaders should seize upon as an opportunity. Despite the challenges we face, the comparative strength of Canada’s post-secondary system remains that all of our publicly-funded institutions, anchored by a committed academic corps, provide a consistently high-quality, comprehensive and liberal education.

Set against the narrow economic thrust of Bologna, Canada’s universities and colleges could very well stand out. Rather than emulating Bologna, our leaders would do better focusing on strengthening the advantages we have.

David Robinson is associate executive director of CAUT.