Posted tagged ‘Bologna process’

The European dimension

March 20, 2010

Just over a week ago, on March 12, Education Ministers from 47 countries formally launched the European Higher Education Area. In essence this is an output from the Bologna process, and the newly launched ‘area’ contains countries that have adapted their higher education systems to Bologna, so that in principle students from any of the 47 countries will now be able to take their credits from programmes they are doing and transfer with these credits to a university from another of these states.

On the occasion of the launch the Ministers also agreed on a general statement – the Budapest-Vienna Declaration on the European Higher Education Area, which can be seen here. The Declaration is strong on general high level statements (as is common in European documents), but in this case it also addresses some key issues such as autonomy for universities and the proper resourcing of higher education.

Right now the risk is that the European Higher Education Area is being launched just as member states are finding it difficult to maintain funding, and in some countries (including Ireland) public funding is falling. If Europe is really aiming to develop a higher education sector that can compete on level terms with the United States, then these issues will need to be addressed urgently. Furthermore, the Bologna process – which is standardising the types of higher education qualifications across Europe – has generated significant hostility in countries that have been used to less well defined standards; while at the same time other commentators are suggesting that the substance of the European Higher Education Area is light. It is therefore to be hoped that the launch, and the additional attention that this may bring for higher education, will persuade governments that higher education cannot be run on a shoestring and must be properly resourced.


Creating continental tensions: the Bologna process

December 1, 2009

If you Google the phrase ‘What is Bologna?’ you get a quick and precise answer: its an ‘inexpensive spiced sausage’. If you want to know what it looks like, here it is.

But as this is a university blog (not that we always focus on academic matters), you may by now have guessed that what I might have wanted from Google was not information about this or any other sausage, but rather something quite different: the process initiated by the European Union in 1999 in Bologna, that aims to create a ‘European Higher Education Area’ by 2010 with comparable qualifications, credit transfer, mobility and quality assurance. The intention is not to create a single higher education system, but rather a set of systems which are comparable in terms of outputs and outcomes. Or at least, that’s my attempt at a brief summary.

However, for many in this part of the world it might as well all be a spiced sausage. In fact, some might suggest that there is something deeply significant in the fact that a Bologna sausage is in America often referred to as ‘boloney’. In part this may be because the Bologna process seems very remote – and in fact, its impact on university life in Ireland may be less than its impact on the continent, as its basic structures probably owe more to the traditional Anglo-American framework than any of the (very diverse) European ones. Bologna for the first time introduces the concept of ‘Bachelor’ and ‘Master’ degree qualifications into European countries.

But as far as continental Europe is concerned, that’s not all. Right now in Germany there are protests and demonstrations about Bologna, based on the fear that the reforms will actually lead to an impoverishment of higher education (not least because it is setting up a standard duration for degree programmes, a concept that runs counter to the German tradition of studying for eight years or more) and a reduction in resourcing.

The Bologna process is, perhaps, still too much just the property of those who are natural European enthusiasts in this country. However, given the effect it is having across Europe, it is time that we too paid more attention.

Undergraduate, postgraduate – what’s the difference?

February 17, 2009

One of the curiosities of my education was that I completed my first postgraduate degree before I completed an undergraduate one. If I were to write about that in any detail, it would be too mind-numbingly boring, so just a very brief explanation: my undergraduate degree was a BA in Law, and the notionally postgraduate degree I was doing, the LLB (Bachelor in Law), could at the time be studied alongside the BA. And that year, the LLB exams took place a few weeks before the BA exams. I told you the reason was boring.

So I graduated with two degrees at the same time, and stuck them both behind my name with hardly a hint of shame at this maybe rather doubtful practice. A couple of years later I had my PhD, so it didn’t matter much any more.

The LLB of that day was a most confusing thing. It had an undergraduate title but was, at least technically, a postgraduate degree; in that it aped its namesake in Cambridge, or the BCL in Oxford. Its syllabus – well, I’m not sure you could say it had a syllabus, as the BA lectures doubled up for the LLB – was hardly a postgraduate one. And the whole thing was corrected a few years later when the LLB became the primary undergraduate law degree of that university.

If I had wanted to study law in the United States, it would have been rather different: I would have had to study for an unrelated undergraduate degree first, and then pursued my law studies at a postgraduate level, generally leading to the Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree, which while labelled a doctoral degree is overwhelmingly not considered to be one.

And if I had studied any subject at all in Germany, it would have been hard to say whether what I was doing was undergraduate or postgraduate or some sort of seamless transition between the two.

Perhaps encouraged by the Bologna process, we have begun to look more systematically at this. It is not that we need to be pedantic or bureaucratic about it all, rather we need to have a clear sense of what we are doing pedagogically. We need to understand what standards and methodologies separate the different levels of degree programmes. We may also need to consider the significance (if any) of the different lengths of degree programmes culminating in the same award – some universities in Britain and Ireland have three-year undergraduate degree programmes, and some have four-year ones.

We also need to address the question whether it is appropriate to study a vocational subject – such as law, accounting and medicine – at undergraduate level at all, or whether this should be done exclusively at postgraduate level.

There is of course a strong case to be made for diversity of mission, purpose and method between different universities, and it would not be difficult to stifle that by adopting too strict a classification for all this. But equally there needs to be an equivalence, with respect for that diversity of content and method, of standards. We need to make it possible for our students and other stakeholders to understand what it means when we provide either undergraduate or postgraduate degree programmes, and for the standards set for each to be verifiable.