The Bologna Process – the difference between theory and practice

Professor Judith Marquand has just published Democrats, Authoritarians and the Bologna Process: Universities in Germany, Russia, England and Wales. Here she explains what the Bologna Process has meant in different countries

When I told the principal of an Oxford college that I was writing a book about the Bologna Process, she asked, “What is that?”

Only in England would such a response have been possible. Elsewhere, in the past two decades the Bologna Process has given rise to unprecedented changes in the structures and methods of higher education. It extends across the whole Council of Europe area, from Nuuk in Greenland to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East. It was signed in 1999, yet no book about it has appeared since 2006. The process renamed itself as the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) in 2010. It now has 47 member states. Beyond this, there is active participation in its triennial Policy Forum by countries from every continent.

Its main provisions have been to introduce, throughout the 47 members a system of three- or four- year first degrees, followed by one- or two-year masters degrees, with comparability of outcomes and diplomas for each student which can be understood throughout the EHEA. Underpinning such a system has required the development of national qualifications structures based on “learning outcomes and competences” so that ways of representing the outcomes of what students have learnt should be comparable. Guidelines for quality assurance spell out what is implied by this and emphasise the need to include all stakeholders in the assessment process.

Student-centred learning is core

The Bologna Process is essentially democratic between members in the conduct of its decision-taking. It is steered centrally by ministerial conferences, now held triennially. The secretariat moves with the conferences; it is located in the country where the next conference is to be held. Before each conference, each member state produces a report on developments in its higher education system. Discussions are held and decisions are taken, but there are no sanctions. Peer pressure and example are the only mechanisms for obtaining compliance. The European Commission funds the secretariat and the conferences and other supporting mechanisms, but the European Union as such is not represented and takes no part in the decisions.

More fundamentally still, the student-centred learning which lies at the core of the methods of the Process is essentially a democratic concept. The idea of capable, active citizens is crucial to the concept of an effective democracy and active, student-centred learning methods are key to forming capable, active citizens. For some countries, especially the so-called “Anglo-Saxon” countries ¬– the UK and North America – and for others in North-Western Europe, there is nothing new about using active learning methods. For many other countries, they are much more difficult. Together with implementation of new degree structures, they pose a major challenge.

So the only way to begin to understand what the Bologna Process has meant on the ground is to look at individual countries and higher education institutions within them.

I selected what I thought were three widely differing countries. The United Kingdom (England and Wales), as the gold standard at the outset of the Process, was an obvious choice. Russia, where I had been working for many years, was another. But it had only joined in 2003. It seemed desirable to include another of the initial signatories. Germany was extremely slow to implement some of the major provisions. What was happening there?

Within each country, I could only interview a limited number of institutions. Obviously the peak organisations had to be included. Additionally, all the countries had “classical” universities and various types of newer institutions, usually with a background in technical or professional training. So I made sure that the handful of institutions I visited in each country included representatives of both traditions.

The English are competent authoritarians

What I found did not correspond to my initial expectations.

In Germany, the reason for slow progress was not unwillingness. Higher education is primarily the responsibility of 16 Land governments. All these governments and the federal government believe in governing through consensus, not through unilateral edict. The Bologna objectives required a huge change, moving from 5 years or longer for a first degree to four years, with defined learning objectives, not curricula, for each course. To change by informed consent to such a system required an immense effort in each institution. Individual institutions enjoy considerable autonomy; the way in which each introduces and assures change is not prescribed. So change at first was slow and gradual. It was only in 2010 that legislation was introduced which required it over the next couple of years. Germany is no longer a laggard.

By contrast, the Russian ministry moves in an authoritarian manner, issuing edicts to which all institutions are supposed to conform. But the central Russian institutions are incompetent authoritarians. They provide almost no guidance on how their edicts are to be implemented and still less, any support in implementing them. So universities are able to go their own way. I visited four of them: two welcomed Bologna, as an opportunity to reform their teaching methods and extend their foreign links, so as to learn from best practice elsewhere. But the other two institutions had simply crammed their five-year syllabuses into four years and had not attempted to reform their teaching methods. “Learning objectives” were simply interpreted as “covering the prescribed syllabus”.

The United Kingdom had signed the Bologna Declaration because the minister for higher education had believed that it would require no significant changes in higher education. At that stage, she was right. But since then, the English system has changed dramatically, in ways which certainly do not respect the democratic methods of the Bologna Process. The environment in which universities operate has become increasingly authoritarian, imposing market-oriented approaches upon them, with the compulsory use of so-called ‘objective’ indicators. Anything which cannot be measured is treated as though it has no value. The key difference between the English and the Russians is simply that the English are COMPETENT authoritarians.

Democratic or authoritarian?

My fourth country is Wales. It turned out that it could not be bracketed with England – since 1999 it has struggled, against the financial odds, to differentiate itself from English policies. The Welsh government view is that the Westminster government pursues policies of “choice, customers and competition”, whilst it believes in “voice, citizens, collaboration”. Not only does it pay all fees above £4,000 per year for Welsh students and provide means-tested maintenance grants, but part-time education is included. More radically still, the Welsh government has accepted and is now consulting on the detailed implementation of the Hazelkorn Report. This provides for a single new Tertiary Education Authority to regulate, oversee and co-ordinate the whole post-compulsory education system. Wales does its best to operate within the spirit of the Bologna Process methods of consultation and agreement.

So the main divide between countries which subscribe to the Bologna Process is that between democratic and authoritarian ones. Why do the authoritarian countries want to participate in what is an essentially democratic Process? I suspect, especially on the basis of my Russian experience, that there is a simple factor explaining the interest of authoritarian governments in the Bologna Process. They see it as a route to help their scientific and technological progress, by enabling them to share in the European and indeed in the “Anglo-Saxon” excellence in these fields. But this misunderstands the role of democratic learning methods in producing such excellence.

What of the future? The triennial Ministerial Conference and Policy Forums take place in Paris on May 24-25. We shall have to see what happens there.

Click here to buy Democrats, Authoritarians and the Bologna Process: Universities in Germany, Russia, England and Wales.