Europe's tertiary revolutions

Students in Vienna, protesting against changes being made to higher education across continental Europe (Leonhard Foeger, Reuters)

Students in Vienna, protesting against changes being made to higher education across continental Europe (Leonhard Foeger, Reuters)

Ministers of education from 47 European countries met in the Romanian capital Bucharest last month to agree on the next steps in the long-running Bologna process, the crab-like progress towards ­creating a “European higher education area” spanning half the globe, from Reykjavik to Vladivostok.

The original aim of Bologna was to introduce the bachelor’s-to-master’s course pattern across Europe to make degrees portable. But a lot more has been added since — for example, on life-long learning and PhDs. The number of countries signing up to the European higher education area has almost doubled, from 25 to 47.

Not much happened in Bucharest, any more than it did at earlier ministerial jamborees or even at the original meeting in 1998 in Bologna, home to the world’s oldest university.
The only whiff of controversy was an amendment to strengthen the “public responsibility” for (funding) higher education. But beneath the suffocating weight of Euro-acronyms, transparency instruments, action lines and the usual Eurobabble, a quiet revolution has been under way in European higher education — stimulated by the spirit of Bologna.

Others have noticed. I remember being at a meeting when the state commissioner for education in Wisconsin in the United States asked, only half-jokingly, how Wisconsin could join the Bologna process. Across Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia there is a belief that something is stirring in Europe.

Only in Europe is the Bologna prophet less honoured and especially so in England, although the Scots are Bologna fans. With one or two honourable exceptions, the English higher education policy class — ministers, civil servants, quangocrats, vice-chancellors — is Eurosceptic to the core.

Being anti-market
England’s “top universities” are the best in the world, alongside those in the US. As the ones that set the pace, they are also embracing the brave new world of the “market” — high fees, cut-throat competition. In contrast, universities in the rest of Europe groan under state control and masses of disaffected students. Their entrepreneurial instincts, if they have any, are undermined by an out-of-date welfare-state affection for the “social dimension”, code for being anti-market.

So what have the English to learn from “them”? The famous (fictitious?) newspaper headline “Fog in Channel — Europe cut off” comes to mind.

They only go through the Bologna motions to be polite, while reassuring themselves that the original intention of Bologna was to make the rest of Europe more like them.

But doubts begin to creep in. Maybe the English view of (continental) European universities is an absurd caricature. What about ETH Zurich, the science and technology university alma mater of Einstein and a pocket-sized Imperial College London? Or what about the decisive contribution of German universities to classical scholarship? The Germans have even colonised classics at Oxford.

And if English universities are so much more entrepreneurial, why are French or Dutch graduates just as employable in the global knowledge economy? As for scientific citations, the top performers, in proportion to population, are small countries such as Finland and Switzerland, not the United Kingdom.

The Bologna process has been key to this success of European higher education—in spirit if not in substance. It has provided a flag around which reformers have rallied and been a catalyst for innovations that had little to do with the action lines agreed at successive European higher education area ministerial meetings.

A space for dialogue
More important still, Bologna has opened up a space for dialogue on difficult policy issues. Finally, it has heightened consciousness of the common legacy of European universities, the contemporary challenges they face and their future promise — as rivals in other world regions have quickly recognised.

English universities have always been at the heart of Europe. English politicians, sadly, have not. The problem is that, these days, higher education is seen more as a bundle of funding, structural and managerial issues, rather like the bad side of Bologna, and less as an academic enterprise, whether in terms of transforming student lives or shaping new ideas, the good side of Bologna.

Another problem is that markets divide and constrict. Is it in British interests to help strengthen a European higher education brand if it compromises its own? Collaborative and interdisciplinary research muddies the waters in terms of the stark ranking of global league tables. The full economic costing of joint programmes is a nightmare.

But perhaps Bologna is even more important as a metaphor, going beyond higher education. There are two roads ahead for the European project.

One, the most travelled, is represented by the euro — rule-bound now with added Teutonic discipline, top-down, exclusive (and determined by the cabinet diplomacy of a Paris-Berlin axis).

The other, less travelled, is represented by Bologna — with few (enforceable) rules, shaped by stakeholders (notably autonomous universities) and open to pretty much everyone. Wisconsin is interested in joining; only Belarus has stayed out. English higher education is clearly at a crossroads. —

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